A twelve-hour flight from LAX takes you to another continent, half a world away culturally and politically, China. Shanghai is the most populated city in the most populated country in the world, there are more humans here than anywhere. Facing an inevitable layover to Bangkok, we decide to extend and experience China’s richest city, where the middle-class has exploded due to booming commerce, and eat some awesome, awesome food.
I’m traveling with my girlfriend Thyme. Though we travel together often, don’t expect us to bore you with extended descriptions of leisure. We have no idea when we will be in a particular place again and need to get everything we can out of a trip. Instead, we plan condensed vacations within our vacations, and enjoy compact leisure in an idyllic setting before moving on to somewhere else, in attempts to experience all the destination has to offer. Thyme will complain that I take trips too quickly, I prefer sunken eyes. Reminding me to soak in the beauty and uncanny nature of traveling, Thyme slows me down with her deeply observational take on experiencing the world. It forces me to forget the next train or boat ride for a little while. Together we have mastered the art of world travel on a college budget, which almost always means packing more into shorter trips.
With only three days and two nights in the city, we go out for breakfast immediately after flying in at 6AM and check into our hotel. Not far from The Bund where you can view the newer Pudong section of the city, we are in a perfect spot to take in the disparities and contradictions the city is home to.
We hop in a cab to grab Shanghai’s most famous export, the soup dumpling. We head to the highly recommended Funchun Xiaolong which is about 15 minutes away from our hotel in downtown, but the dense traffic doubles the amount of time it takes our driver to weave in out of the bumper to bumper. Finally, we get to the restaurant and have our first culture shock of a menu with no Latin characters. If I have learned anything about eating in tourist hot-spots with great food, it’s that a menu without a trace of English is only a good sign. The language limitation is no problem; we just can’t seem to figure out the order of things in this place. Do we sit down? Order at the counter? Pay at the counter? We request xiaolong bao to which the woman asks pork or crab?
“Both,” we say, simultaneously.
The dumplings arrive– which are individually rolled out and steamed with ginger and soy until the fat fosters a soup inside– with Shanghai style pork chop and a Chinese Worcestershire sauce. Both are completely sublime.
Before heading over to the Jade Buddha Temple, we hit the street and stop at specialty coffee shop Sumerian frequented by ex-pats and tourists. It’s hip, modern, and expensive. We enjoy a cold brewed iced coffee, filtered with nitrogen to give it a smoother taste and bigger body, and a latte with pure sugar cane and butterscotch. Feeling rightly caffeinated, we wander into a famous shopping district in the Pudong, where tourists, mostly Chinese, walk quickly over each other to buy their Prada or Michael Kors.
We take the subway over to the temple. It’s cheap, efficient, and every sign is in English as well as Mandarin. The Temple is quaint but contains large gold statues of warriors, monks, and The Buddha. The numerous monks that surround a large sculptor of Buddha stare at you jovially, yet hauntingly. The most famous attraction of the temple is the reclining Buddha, a motif we learn is common all over Buddhist Asia.
Feeling sweaty from the wet air and oppressive heat of the summer, we decide to head back to the hotel to freshen up for our evening activities. It begins to rain, and after some thunder and lightning, it clears up before we catch a cab to dinner.
When we walk into the tinted restaurant, there are tables of businessmen smoking, drinking, dealing, and feasting out of hot pots and communal dishes. Thyme is charmed by the possibility of smoking inside. The restaurant boasts Hunan cooking, a province known for its spicy food. We order the famous cumin ribs, or ziran paigu, spicy squid with tons of chilies, and beef knuckles with potatoes in a deeply satisfying broth. We wash it down with plenty of beer, and then, bliss.
Feeling full, our heads in the clouds of spice and alcohol, we’re off into the night in search for the perfect rooftop bar. One classy, but not too expensive. We decide on Bar Rouge, and despite the must-bone-someone clientele, the drinks are strong, and the view is magnificent.
After stumbling into the street, giving the Pudong one last gaze, and almost getting ripped off by a cab driver (something to watch out for in this part of the world), we are in bed, ready to enjoy the city again tomorrow. Not bad for our first day in Shanghai.
We wake up and want savory pancakes. Going for the famous Mr. Wu’s scallion pancakes across the city, we get there and realize that Mr. Wu has moved and he is a decent walk away, but we decide to make the trek. Along the middle-class street, residents are selling all kinds of snacks. A gloomy rain descends upon the neighborhood. Walking in the rain, we see another lady selling breakfast pastries including scallion pancakes, so we decide to grab one with a milk tea from across the street, and head straight for Chinese hot -pot. We pancakes are warm, savory, and comforting in the drops are long rain, the tea is sweet and has a gelatinized fruit at the bottom. The drizzle reminds us travel is bending to your surroundings, and is always a beautiful way to get to know a foreign place.
We take a cab to a popular place for hot-pot. Usually, you walk right in and pick out your ingredients, but this place brings them out to you from the back. The menu had no discernible characters or photos, and the young employees don’t speak any English. They joyfully giggle at us as we giggle at ourselves. We all do our best, and use an iPhone to translate. Our pot ends up with a hodge-podge of eclectic, spicy deliciousness. When I say spicy, I mean it. If you know me at all, you know how I love the stuff. This is by far one of the spiciest, tear-jerking, cough inducing things I have every eaten. Dozens and dozens of chilies are boiled in the broth. We add spices, noodles, beef, spam, fish cakes, and tripe from what I believe is some sort of reptile. Totally awesome.
After lunch, we plan on hitting a museum or two. We decide on the Shanghai museum, ancient history curators that focus on Shanghai and surrounding areas. As we walk toward the metro, we see a woman of a nearby restaurant chopping bok choy on their wood patio with a cleaver. Like much of the industry in China, food safety seems to be overlooked.
The ancient sculpture, calligraphy, and paintings are gorgeous.The museum gives you the heavy feeling of history, and puts you in your place when you think you’re getting a grasp on the never-ending study of Chinese culture. It will constantly remind you are ignorant of just about all of it. It’s refreshing, and takes the pressure off.
Hungry again, we set out again to find some won tons. This time we try the famous Er Guang Won Ton. Venturing towards the restaurant we pass through Shouning Road, one of the city’s last street food areas. Though most of the street food has been pushed out of Shanghai, the short road is crawling with people walking to and fro, looking for something delicious. The neon lights illuminate live snakes, lobsters, all kinds of fish. Name your esoteric animal protein and Shouning Road probably has it.
On a run-down shack on a tarnished street of wealthy Shanghai, we have the best meal of our stay. We walk from the restaurant to a boutique mall with a three-story Starbucks, pass through another expensive fashion district and make it back to our hotel. Our flight to Bangkok is tomorrow. The street that hosts one of the many Er Guang stalls around the city is riddled with poverty. Women clean dishes in sinks on the street, and a boy is bathed in a bucket by his father. Even in its richest city you have poor China, where the majority suffer from inequity despite the growing middle-class. The tiny dining area of the stall is not the cleanest spot I’ve eaten at. Grease stains everything, there are ants, and a dragonfly flies in and out of the open air covering. There are no napkins, only a roll of toilet paper that is grabbed from the wall as the customers leave.
We order huge beers and drink them out of tiny plastic cups.The food comes and the women that took our order thought I asked for the fried pork chop that we had before with the soup dumplings. Despite the fact that we had wanted fried won tons, the pork chop here is even tastier than the first. We have spinach dumplings with peanut-chili sauce and pork dumplings in a light savory broth.
As we get ready to leave Shanghai, we need what I like to call a getaway meal; where you sneak in something delicious, ultra-satisfying, and fully comforting before you depart from a place. We head back to Shouning Road to get some noodles. We decide on a restaurant where home-made noodles are served in a spicy broth with the meat of your choosing and tons of onions. We drink Chinese Coca-Cola and soak in our last few moments in this crazy city before we fly to Thailand, and to the even wilder and infamous city of Bangkok.