About My Trip To Shanghai

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Well it was a huge relief to land in Shanghai after more than 7 hours in Guilin Airport.  The flight was full of some pretty pushy Chinese tourists, which meant that I was the last one off the plane, but the universe was smiling and I had the last laugh as my bag appeared first.  I grabbed it and ran for the taxi rank.

One of the great things about Yanghuo Mountain Retreat is that the guests are so delighted to be there that they’re very chatty - so I’d already had a few tips on Shanghai - particularly that the taxi rank is very well organised.  It is, in fact, so well organised that, when a couple of passengers jumped the queue, the two men organising the queue blew their whistles, flagged down the naughty cab who had accepted them, and proceeded to write him a very big ticket and a big telling off.  Now I don’t speak Mandarin, but it sounded very much like “you’ll never work in this town again”. 

So, I jumped in a cab, promptly dialled the front desk of my hotel (Les Suites Orient) and asked them to give the taxi driver directions.  (So much for my not buying a local SIM as I wouldn’t be using my phone much!)  Even at this time of night I was caught up in traffic as we headed into Shanghai.  I really didn’t know what to expect but, as with Hong Kong I was beginning to feel like I was in a sci-fi movie again.  The bubble-like plastic around the cab drivers is pure “Fifth Element”.  I managed to stay wide awake on adrenalin for another hour until we finally pulled up on what looked like a dingy little street.  I refused to get out.  Called the front desk again and put him back on to the driver... who drove another 5 yards until I could see the front entrance... and I was there!

Exhausted, worn down from food poisoning, over 7 hours in an airport, struggling to get off the plane, an hour in traffic and a last minute row with the cab driver, the staff waltzed me through check in, and up to my suite.  Where my jaw dropped.  Not only was it possibly the most sumptuous room I have ever stayed in, but it was also the most technologically advanced - it was absolutely the futuristic Shanghai experience that I had hoped for.

When I could finally drag myself away from the hotel the next day, I headed straight to the Yu or Yuyuan Garden.  The problem with the garden, which is a real, ancient garden, situated in the middle of a bigger, Disney version of the garden with stacks of touristy shops, is that it was created centuries ago for emperors who were sorely missing the rivers, trees, lakes and caves of rural China.  If you’ve just come from the middle of this natural beauty, i.e. Yangshuo, well... it’s a bit of a let down.

My next stop was what I had really come to Shanghai for.  Top of my list of places to be pampered was the legend that is The Banyan Tree in the Westin Bund Center Hotel where I was planning to indulge in the 2 hour intensive foot care treatment.  It was nice, but not the super deluxe 5 star experience I’d been expecting after my stellar experience at the Mandarin Spa, Hong Kong.

I’d already had my lunch at the EEST Crystal Garden in the Westin Bund Center, which was unfortunately not very good and the ambience was pretty poor too - so I left the Westin Bund, one of the top rated hotels in Shanghai, with the distinct impression that it was a little overrated and that I was better off in mine!

I wandered over to the People’s Square, passing along Guangdong Road where I experienced possibly the worst smell of my life.  (Don’t ask me what it was, I just ran!)  But I couldn’t really see what the fuss was about when I got to the square.

I was starting to wonder what Shanghai was all about, apart from luxury hotels and spas?  And apart from the slightly nervous and considerate manner of the staff in my hotel, I was getting the distinct impression that the people of Shanghai had seen it all before.  In fact, Shanghai reminded me of Los Angeles; the scale, the sun and the luxury, except that I was finding Shanghai more lonely.  At least in LA when people hear an English accent they strike up a conversation, in Shanghai the only people to do that were the hotel staff!

So there I was in People’s Square, thinking how much Mandy would have loved the architecture and how it was a distinct possibility that my legs might go out from under me as everything caught up with me.

I’d have loved to jump on the city’s great public transport system or grab a super cheap cab, but unfortunately I’d managed to time this with rush hour, so I was also in danger of being knocked off my feet by the hordes running from the office to the shops.  (A massive Zara on the corner was very popular!)

I decide to take refuge in one of the well marked luxury hotels (although I was so wobbly at this point I could barely find it) - The Langham, Yangtze Boutique.  It’s a classic upmarket Chinese hotel - from the plush colonial lobby to the ladies in cheongsams greeting guests - once again it made me glad of my hotel - down to earth staff all dressed in a gentle grey and surrounded by muted neutral silks and velvets - I wished I was back there!

Luckily The Langham, Yangtze Boutique has a great 1950s American style coffee shop - Ciao (aka Ciao Bambino) - I’ve never been so glad to see a picture of John Wayne.  The coffee and service were excellent and after a piece of cheesecake I felt ready to face the streets of Shanghai again.

I plodded back to The Bund, knowing I could easily find my hotel from there.  The Bund after dark is incredible - as if the whole of Shanghai has emptied onto it to watch the subtle light show on the other side of the river.  Whereas Hong Kong’s lights seem to have been thrown together by an 8 year old boy at Christmas time, Shanghai’s soft and romantic light show has been designed by a society lady intent on entertaining her guests without being vulgar.  Another thing I loved about Shanghai is that although there are people selling tat on The Bund I never got hassled.  The fact is that in Shanghai the Chinese have more money than the tourists.  Having felt like a rich and privileged tourist in Yangshuo, in Shanghai I felt exactly like “Pretty Woman”.  Seriously, if you are looking for vocabulary for a trip to Shanghai I highly recommend watching it in Mandarin.  Phrases like “I have to go shopping now” are essential.  Shanghai is so much like LA - for a start  there’s no “there” there.  I tried to go sightseeing but after Hong Kong and Yangshuo the only sight that held a candle was The Bund.

Did I like it?  Well yes and no.  I loved my hotel, what I didn’t like was that I was on my own in a place where nobody would strike up a conversation, and I was a bit lonely.  I was a bit desperate and glad to have a 2 minute conversation with a taxi guy as I waited in line at the Puli or the Peninsula.  Chatting to the guy from Beijing about his home was one of the high points of my trip.  Thank heavens for excitable boys from Beijing.

I woke up the next day at 6am determined to make the most of being in Shanghai.  I made it across the road to The Bund for 3.5 seconds before I had to run back to my very lovely bathroom (hey I certainly got my money’s worth!) and a nap before breakfast.

Clearly the itinerary for the day had to be slow and healing - so I started with some yoga on the hotel’s zen platform, before setting off in a cab to the Kanjung Massage Centre, which I had read rave reviews about.  After circling around for a bit (they’ve knocked down so many streets recently that even good cab drivers get lost) we arrived and I realised that every single spa I had read about was on the same road!  It was Spa Road - and I felt like a kid in a candy store!  First I ran straight into Kanjung were I was eager to try two treatments - cupping and gua sha (scraping).  The staff didn’t speak any English but they had an English menu - I pointed out what I wanted, they shrugged, took my money, and... I proceeded to have the most painful and disfiguring spa experience of my life!

To say I was glad to leave was an understatement, but when I saw the state of my back I was really freaked out. 

Luckily the rest of the spa places I visited; Peony and Dragonfly had receptionists who spoke wonderful English, so I was able to show them the huge welts on my back and ask what they thought.  They winced and told me it was a bit severe, but should be okay in a few days (and to make sure I kept it out of the sun.)  A back massage was out of the question so I decided to go for a tried and tested reflexology session at Dragonfly.

Things were definitely on the up - I popped across the road to try Kitchen 88 - well, it was the only restaurant with an English menu. Such a lovely waitress and possibly the best meal I ate in China.

As my stomach was now vaguely calm I thought I’d go for a bit of wander, which is when I found out that, like LA, the size of Shanghai is very deceptive.  In the end I was just walking along a motorway or at least that’s what it felt like.  Luckily I was fairly close to the Puli Hotel so I could use the loo (even better than the one in my hotel!!), enjoy a coffee and jump in a cab back to my hotel for a “swim in my tub” which my back sorely needed.

So - my last night in Shanghai - I had to try to do some shopping and some kind of going out.  So it was up The Bund stopping at the shops and warehouses recommended in The Luxe guide but there was nothing that great, until I found a little shop right on the end of Nanjing Road where I could have got some great “silk” tops made up in my size if only I hadn’t been leaving the next morning.

Once again I felt like the best thing in Shanghai was the hotels when I walked into The Peninsula; the staff there were so lovely - unlike the sniffy Hong Kong crowd they appreciated my Fit Flops and when I dropped into the spa the receptionist ran off immediately to get the manager to check out my back.  (She made me feel better by telling me she has it done herself - but not at The Peninsula!)

Then I slipped into the ground floor Compass Bar; live jazz, an outside table opposite their private park and a Snow Flower cocktail that made me feel like I was finally living the high life in Shanghai.

The next morning I finally made it to The Bund at 6am.  It being Sunday it was heaving, tennis players, runners, tai chi enthusiasts and most wonderful of all; the kites.  The Chinese ability with kites is something else, and when an old man started flying his hawk kite around me - it was the best conversation I had while I was in Shanghai.

But minute by minute Shanghai was getting hotter - so by the time I got back to the hotel and rushed in the door at 7am I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie - the kind where you have to get deep underground before sunrise.  Or in the words of “Good Morning Vietnam” it was “hot, damn hot, fool were you born on the sun?”

Anyway, after several trips to the breakfast buffet and as much dim sum as I could pack my cheeks with, I decided to try and see a little bit more of Shanghai the easy way.  I got a cab... and got the hotel guy to explain that I wanted to drive around for a bit and see some sights.

Oh my goodness, I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a boring time - sorry but as the poor driver tried to point out the sights - temples with queues all the way around them (not a patch on Hong Kong) and parks (patches of grass compared to Yangshuo) and posh shopping centres all I could think of was LA.  So I whacked some loud Prince on my iPod and asked him to take me to The Peninsula.

I know I sound like a real philistine here, but it’s just that some of the amazing things about Shanghai are the European buildings - but if you come from Europe... If you walk around you can catch glimpses of old streets and day to day life, which I’d seen on my first few walks around the city, but it doesn’t compare with the bustle of the streets in Hong Kong.  Maybe I was just comparing too much.

My hour cab ride around Shanghai was a pittance, so when I realised I was at The Peninsula before the hair salon even opened (at 10 am) and the restaurant manager suggested I enjoy some breakfast what could I do?  Blueberry pancakes with chantilly cream and a big silver pot of tea... I didn’t get to have afternoon tea at The Peninsula in Hong Kong so this was the next best thing (they also do afternoon tea here, but I only found out the night before I was leaving!)

Some spa experiences are sensational, others are okay, others go horribly wrong - having my hair cut at the new Peninsula Salon was a bit of all three.  Wonderful head and ear massage, great haircut, but appalling time keeping which is not good when you have to catch a plane.  At one point they left me under a sort of steamer for a treatment and then forgot about me - I had to duck out and grab my stylist to dry my hair.  But then he was taking so long that I had to literally run out with wet hair.  And then the worst - they don’t take credit cards!  This was after paying with my card in the restaurant earlier.  I ran with the receptionist up to the main hotel desk, where they again insisted that I had to pay in cash - ulp!  Luckily they decided to let me go back to my hotel and pick up the cash.  At this point I was in danger of being late for checkout at my hotel and of course there was a massive queue for a taxi.  It was probably only 10 minutes walk, but in searing 11am heat.  Finally the taxi wrangler threw me in a cab and I made it back to my hotel just in time to check out.  Then I headed for the airport, stopping off to pay my bill at The Peninsula (leaving my cab outside with the meter running!)  After all the spa treatments and luxury hotel time, I left Shanghai with one buttock so tightly clenched I wasn’t sure it would ever come down.

On the upside it was another super cheap cab ride and an airport that had both a Starbucks and a Costa (although sadly only before security which I found out after I’d gone through!)

All in all Shanghai was actually perfect for me; it didn’t have enough tourist attractions for me to run myself ragged; it had more spas than even I could try in a few days; it had wonderful luxury hotels so that I didn’t have to use a sub-par toilet the whole time I was there; my own wonderful suite where I could relax, soak and snooze; a well equipped gym and zen platform to practise yoga and great food to get me back on the road to recovery before heading up Huangshan (Yellow Mountain).

The Bund, Shanghai from my room at Les Suites Orient

Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai

EEST Crystal Garden at the Westin Bund Center, Shanghai

Ciao Bambino at The Langham Yangtze, Boutique, Shanghai

Kanjung Massage Centre, Dagu Road, Shanghai

Temple with long queue, Shanghai

Blueberry pancakes at The Peninsula, Shanghai

Me having my head steamed at The Peninsula hair salon, Shanghai

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