On the flight from Paris (CDG) to Shanghai (Pu Dong) on China Eastern Airlines, one thing was abundantly clear. There were very few Europeans on board. I could see about 10 on the A330-200 that has a capacity of 220 or thereabouts. So Paris was a good introduction to Shanghai.
Approaching Pu Dong Airport in the early hours of the morning it was also abundantly clear – or not in this case – the city has a smog problem. No, the sun hadn’t inched through the clouds at that stage but, even so, a pinkish-grey fog hung over the precincts and it stayed that way on the hour-long drive from the airport too.
Before the drive however, there was an enforced waiting period at the airport. The immigration official looked at my passport, asked how long I was staying (48 hours) and said she was ‘holding my passport and where were my other travel documents?’ I handed them over.
She asked if I was travelling alone. “Yes”, I said hopefully and was told to wait ‘over there’ as she pointed to some chairs resting against a wall in the distance. After about 20 minutes I asked the man sitting next to me – we were the only ones there – if he knew why we were waiting.
“It’s to do with the visa,” he said. “China adopted a 72-hour visa-free period a while ago and it seems they aren’t quite used to it yet.”
He was German and his country qualified for the visa-free option, as does New Zealand. Since neither of us had a visa, that appeared to be the issue although we weren’t told.
Perhaps some confusion exists because there is also a visa-free period of 144 hours (six days) in China under certain conditions. In any event, after about 40 minutes, we were called to the counter. I was questioned again and had to show I was booked on an Air New Zealand flight two days hence and was cautioned that I couldn’t go outside the Shanghai city boundaries. So Beijing (which I considered visiting) was out of the question. But if there is no immigration check between cities, how would they know if I did go there?
I wondered whether the driver of the private car service had waited. He had indeed and was wonderful. He couldn’t speak English but he’d talk into his phone and his words were translated by a robot. Nice touch, literally.
It was a relief to get to the Howard Johnson Hotel. This is surely one of the best value-for-money options available at $176 (NZ) for two nights. The hotel is central, well-appointed and the rooms are comfortable. Thoroughly recommended.
The bonus was meeting cousins from Queenstown who were heading back home from a family wedding in Dublin and, fortuitously, there at the same time as moi. Sue’s a whizz with maps and nailed navigating her way around Shanghai.
We went for an evening stroll to The Bund, the well-known waterfront section on the banks of the Huangpu River. From Waibaidu Bridge to Nanpu Bridge it’s about 1.5ks and on this night (and probably most nights) it was absolutely packed with people.
It was clear, again, there were not many foreigners about. We stood out like the proverbial and were a target for picture-takers. A group of women, each wearing a colourful cheongsam (Cantonese) or qipao (Mandarin) insisted on having their photo taken with us, one at a time for all of them and each of us. We obliged because they were so warm and welcoming, as were others who politely asked for selfies with us.
And so to dinner. We opted for a vastly un-Chinese hamburger because we were a bit jet-lagged and needed something substantial. The meal was fantastic and served with the meat and salad separate to the bun. Nice touch, again.
By the time we came out of the restaurant it was just after 10pm and what was very clear indeed was that the huge crowds we’d met on the stroll to The Bund had disappeared. Gone. Puff! Just like that. The place was deserted except for a few cyclists and a street cleaner or two. Thousands had just vanished into the ether. It was utterly surreal.
What we discovered the next day was, the Metro closes at 10.30pm so all those people on The Bund and all the chefs and waiters in restaurants or retail assistants in the shops that stay open, must leave before 10 to get home, likely to one of the hundreds of high-rise ubiquitous apartment buildings that proliferate the city.
It means Shanghai has very little of the night life you’d experience in other major cities. At least, not that we discovered. It means, too, there are no patrons sitting outside restaurants drinking wine until the wee smalls (like Paris) or crowds of football fans celebrating a win from Real Madrid (in Madrid) or late-night strollers along the river bank (as in London).
A must-see is the Jing’an Buddhist Temple, the Old City of Shanghai (crowded and where the exterior power lines from each building dangle dangerously outside and overhead) and the many gardens large and little that abound in the city. The food choice from the myriad of stalls that line the central city streets, and from restaurants, is deliciously diverse.
Shanghai, during the day at least, is a vibrant city and recommended, even for a visa-free 48 hours.