Shanghai :: Your Gateway Drug to China

Please welcome our newest Guest Adventurer… Yvonne from the blog Escaping the Empty Nest. Yvonne has quite an adventurous back story! She and her family sold everything to travel the world and then are settling in Paris. How exciting is that? To learn more about her inspiring story check out her blog. Thank you Yvonne for sharing this interesting & helpful guide to Shanghai.


Why is Shanghai a good place to go if you’re visiting China for the first time?

Because China is a big, fascinating, overwhelming place, and you need to start someplace that’s user-friendly. Shanghai’s your town.

Here are a few reasons why ~

People there are used to Westerners, so you won’t get stared at much and most people know some English. There is less air pollution than in Beijing, less military presence than in western China, and the plumbing is sturdier. It’s less crowded and more Chinese than Hong Kong, and the weather is pretty mild. There is plenty of beautiful, familiar, European style architecture (thanks to colonialism).Disclaimer: I’m not saying colonialism is good. We’ve figured out that taking over other countries is bad. But the Chinese are happily using all those nice buildings that the Europeans left behind, so it’s ok to appreciate them.

colonialism and Shanghai

China is rough, but rewarding. Let me explain.

China is like my Aunt Myra. Feisty lady. She had some indiscretion before I was born and moved to California when she felt that the family wasn’t treating her right. (Leaving Texas is a huge deal. She might as well have gone to the moon.) We heard rumors both about her wild exploits and about her heroic deeds. Then, in her old age, she moved back to Texas and started showing up at family gatherings. Always prickly, she hurt people’s feelings and offended them, but she also made toys for the kids and told great stories. Pretty soon, she was back in the fold, occasionally telling stories about her California years, or refusing to tell and hence mystifying everyone. But she was one of our people, and we took her back, warts and all.

That’s how China is. We heard about China’s glory days in the past, but then it disappeared for a while and rumors flew. Now China is back, trying to get a seat at the table, and we’ve got to welcome it back. If you’re a human being, China is your people, too.

Just like Thanksgiving dinner once a year with Aunt Myra was a treat, Shanghai is a treat. It’s a limited dose of China, and taken in small quantities it can be thrilling.

I advise one of these three ways for you can to get to know Shanghai. If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably arrived at that point in life between backpacker and Elderhostel: an adventuresome person who is willing to hike, but places a high value on a good night’s sleep and regular meals.

1. Your cushiest option is the full tour, booked in the US (or wherever you’re from, thanks for reading from distant lands!). You’ll stay in a western-style hotel, eat in safe restaurants, and have day trips to beautiful places. If you get sick or injured, they’ll get you a doctor. The drawbacks are lack of freedom and confinement with strangers. However, this is a popular option and there’s no shame in taking the road most traveled. You’re still getting out of your comfort zone and seeing new things.

I have never taken a tour, because I am not a caged bird and because I think the smell of buses is repulsive. Something about that diesel/vomit combo just doesn’t work for me. However, ask me again when I’m a senior citizen or if I suddenly get a whole lot of disposable income. Many’s the time I’ve watched an air conditioned coach disgorge its passengers into a restaurant’s sparkling private room, cool wet washcloths at each place setting, while I try to keep my dirty exhausted starving family members from killing each other while waiting for our table next to the bathroom. No judgement. I might join you someday.

pedestrian Shanghai

2. Your second option is the nice hotel with day trips. Plan your own trip, as far as transportation and hotels go, but be sure to stay in a hotel which has a lot of amenities for tourists. Choose a neighborhood near People’s Square and the Bund. Most people speak enough English to provide you with competent service in shops and restaurants, and there is a long beautiful pedestrian street which is full of western and Chinese shops.

For day trips, most hotels can set you up with tours to local sights. You’ll get a van with a private driver and tour guide who speaks English. You’ll see cool stuff, and the tours are reasonably priced, but you’ll pay for it in multiple stops to factories with gift shops: jade, silk, tea, etc. The driver and guide will wait while you buy stuff in the gift shops. Unless you, like me, don’t want any jade, silk, or tea. Then the driver and guide just watch you stand there.

You can also chose a company that does local tours like Big Bus Tours I’ve taken their Paris tour, and it’s very good. If you’d rather go it alone, you can get a good guidebook or downloadable maps and self-guided walking tours, but take care of that before you leave the US because the internet is iffy in China. Taxis are plentiful and cheap. Take the hotel’s card with you so the taxi driver can get you home quickly.

Stay in a hotel that’s nicer than the ones you’re used to in the US. Why? Because China, even friendly Shanghai, is dirty and crowded, and people have different standards of cleanliness and manners than you’re used to. If you stay at Happiness Good Luck Inn, you’ll save money, but you’ll get travel fatigue very soon and won’t want to come back. Asian service and hospitality really show up in their better hotels, especially in their attentive personal service and buffet breakfasts. They’ll nourish you with TLC and fortify you for each day’s outing. Trust me, by the time you come back to the hotel in the evening, after a day of being jostled and shouted at and having the daylights scared out of you in a taxi, you’re going to want to kiss that spanking-clean bellboy on the lips when he smiles and opens the door for you. Get the nice hotel.

The nice-hotel-with-day-trips is my favorite option when we travel to the more remote areas of China. For first-timers to China, Shanghai is remote enough.


Shanghai old style housing

Shanghai side street

3. Your third option is getting an Airbnb and fending for yourself. That was our choice this past trip. We stayed in a lovely apartment near the Bund, and it was clean and comfortable with a small kitchen and washing machine. We stocked the fridge with breakfast food from convenience stores
and fruit from street vendors, ate out for lunches, and got quick easy dinners from the mom and pop noodle soup places down the street. Since my husband is Chinese, and I can speak enough Mandarin to make friends, language isn’t a barrier and we managed the outings just fine. If you don’t speak Chinese, pointing and smiling will get you most foods you want.

Shanghai airbnb

Shanghai soup


Taxis are cheap, but if you’re adventurous enough to stay in an Airbnb, you’re brave enough to try the public transportation system. Buy tickets in the subway station, from a machine or an attendant. The system is clean and punctual, with signs in English.

Whichever option you pick, you’ll have a great time in Shanghai! Like with Aunt Myra, keep a healthy sense of humor and remember that she’s been through a lot and has a radically different perspective on things than you do.

Have you picked your option yet? Do you have travel plans for China? Let me know!

You can find Yvonne on her blog: Escaping the Empty Nest

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