Driving into Shanhai from the airport through a haze so thick we could barely make out Pudong’s signature skyscrapers, it crossed our mind that maybe it wasn’t so bad that we have only one night here. Road traffic, however, was light as this was Chinese New Year’s. While most of the city was rather deserted, the wide pedestrian-only Nanjing Road and the Bund were packed with Chinese tourists welcoming in the Year of the Rabbit.
We first stayed at the Yangtze Hotel, conveniently located two blocks east of People’s Park and two block south of Nanjing Road, ten years ago when it was listed in Lonely Planet as a good mid-range hotel. Then it was an adequate, clean hotel in an old Deco-style building. It’s been renovated and spiffed up just a little bit more each time we’ve gone back over the years, mirroring the changes in Shanghai itself. Now part of the Langham International chain, it has well appointed rooms, an elegant lobby, spa services, friendly and efficient service and of course the increased price to match. Fortunately, good deals can still be found on Hotels.com.
Before dinner we strolled down Nanjing Road among the masses of Chinese. Shops and restaurants are decorated with bunnies and packed with tourists. Neon lights glow through haze that softens the frenzied mood on the street.
As we walked, we reminisced about the first time we walked down this street. Then it was a bustling mix of old and new with less neon and more bicycles. Just learning to cross the street by weaving through the steady stream of bicycles, pedestrians and the occasional car was cultural experience. Then, traffic lights were installed and the Chinese had to be taught to respect the changing color of lights that would now dictate their actions. Traffic cops or guards were put in at the most prominent intersections. They held the anxious crowd back against the might of the red light. Now the lights seems to work on their own with fewer guards and fewer pedestrian pushing the limits of “civilized” street crossing. The buildings, shops and streets have all been gentrified as well. Gone are the ubiquitous dirt, grime and crumbly shops that remind you that this is still an emerging economy. Western names, such as a Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Haagen Dazs line the street with neon lights to remind that this is still Asia.
Where Nanjing Road meets the Huangpu River the contrast between old and new Shanghai is at its most obvious. On the Bund side the old colonial structures glow the color of aged paper, while across the river in Pudong the newer section of skyscrapers with their funky architecture that scream modern Asia are lit in a psychedelic mix of primary colors. The river and haze unite the two sides illustrating from one vantage point both the past and future of Shanghai.
For dinner we stopped at a typical Chinese family style restaurant. Loud, filled with cigarette smoke, brightly lit and packed with Chinese having a good time. They bring us the menu, a bound book complete with a table of contents. Its glossy pages have helpful appetizing photos and descriptions in English. Unfortunately most of the dishes are so foreign in concept that the English doesn’t help much. No where are the traditional vegetables and classic dishes we love and know how to order. After much examination and discussion with the waitress (several of our first choices were not available) we order some kind of slimy white vegetable in a salty herbed sauce, fried pomfret (fish), a very spice Sichuan style catfish simmered in a pot of chilies and Sichuan pepper, and a lamb and pickled daikon soup.
I wanted stir-fried greens, but my poor Chinese failed me or there weren’t any greens to be had and we ended up with the slimy winter vegetable, the pieces of which were cut just big enough that you couldn’t put the whole thing in your mouth and just slimy enough that you couldn’t hold on to it with the chop sticks to get a good bite out of it. The ultimate embarrassment is when the kind, on looking waitstaff takes pity on you and brings you a knife and fork. I was hoping I was past this stage of learning to eat Chinese.
The fried fish, which was actually described as smoked on the menu, was fresh hot, semi-boneless, crunchy and tasty.
Our favorite dish was the Sichuan style catfish presented first to the table with the bowl full of chili peppers before taking it back to a serving area to clear out the majority of the inedible dried hot chilies. The bowl they brought back has all the flavor of the myriad chilies along with the mouth tingling ma of Sichuan pepper, a unique combination of the fragrance of fresh pepper and a “heat” that numbs the lips and tongue unlike any other spice. Devine with the fresh, not muddy, catfish and sprouted mung beans.
The oddest dish was from the winter menu, a mélange of pickled Daikon, and bits of lamb, or rather, small lamb bones with just a taste of lamb on them, and thick round rice noodles in a broth that tasted half stock and half brining solution. I wasn’t sure if I liked it but was so intrigued by the flavors that I kept eating it, insisting after every bit that yes it was indeed too salty for me.
But this is what I love about dining in China. It’s both a true food adventure as well as an authentic cultural experience. The Chinese go out to eat and you the traveler can go to where they eat, try the dishes and immerse yourself in their dining culture.
The next morning, we were up early. Actually I didn’t sleep much after the 1:00 AM fireworks and firecrackers. (We found out later that on the fifth day of the New Year the Chinese stay home and set off firecrackers to bring wealth and fortune to their families. I guess some think it’s best to get a really early start.)The city was still cloaked in a haze and we searched the streets for baozi. On past trips we would go to our favorite baozi stand, pick up a couple of vegetable and meat filled buns, buy Dunkin Donuts coffee (In those days Starbuck’s didn’t open until 11am) and head to People’s Park to watch early risers practice tai chi. A great breakfast setting with the trees of the park against a backdrop of skyscrapers and the calm of tai chi in contrast to buzz of the streets. But this morning there was no baozi to be found. In the quest to polish Shanghai’s image for last year’s world expo, food street vendors seemed to have lost out to fast food chains. We roamed the back streets in the area looking for breakfast options. The popular street breakfast was a sort of Chinese burrito filled with a crispy fried wafer, egg and seasoning, rolled up and fried in more oil than I really wanted to eat.
In our search for breakfast we stumbled across a number of small shops selling bunnies and other small pets. Of course we are guessing that these are indeed meant to be pets and not a snack between meals. The cute fluffy bunnies were caged in small gift packs to bring the recipient luck in the year of the rabbit. Cynical me, envision an increase consumption of bunny stew.
Finally we found a cafeteria type breakfast shop. The menu was written in Chinese on a board as you entered the restaurant. You then proceeded to the cashier to tell her what you wanted. For a foreigner not very skilled in Chinese this is the worst situation. Pointing is not an option. After some negotiation in a mix of Chinese, English and a fair amount of confusion, we ordered a bowl of beef noodles and a basket of dumplings. Success!
Next, for coffee, we stopped by Starbuck’s (They now open at 8:00 AM) for a cup to go. The coffee cost two and half times the 19 yuan, or three dollars, we spent on breakfast. We strolled through the park to watch the tai chi on the way back to the hotel. Some things like these dedicate souls practicing their morning ritual don’t change. A comforting feeling along with the warm milk from my latte filling my belly on this chilly morning.