Shanghai Surprise - Inside a mesmerising city that changes daily
There's a hotel in Shanghai called the Fairmont Peace Hotel; it dates from the 1920s and for anyone who knew old Shanghai, it was a symbol of all that was louche and abandoned in those days, before communism.
Situated in an area known as the Bund, by the water, it's a beautiful art deco building with Lalique chandeliers, ornate fan lights, and a wonderful foyer lined with photos of the celebrities who stayed there back in the day. It has several claims to fame; its design, its location, its historical relevance - US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have been there - yet oddly, it also boasts that its jazz band is the oldest in the world. The average age of the members of the current band is 82 and the letter from Guinness World Records confirming the veracity of its claim can be seen as the said same members play their swing tunes in the sultry late afternoon.
Then again, perhaps it's not so odd that they are so proud of this ancient band. Maybe it's because there is so little that is old in this mesmerising Chinese city, which changes daily. It's said that the equivalent of Manhattan is built there every year. It's now got a population of 27 million and size-wise, it's the equivalent of an area stretching from Dublin to Newry.
The initial over-arching impression on hitting the ground in Shanghai is one of motorways, flyovers and skyscrapers, many of them stunning examples of modern architecture. The best are built in the area known as Pudong, opposite the Bund. Pudong didn't exist 20 years ago and is a stark contrast to the Bund, home to the iconic older buildings. The Pudong skyline at night betters that of Manhattan - all lit up and twinkling.
There's the Shanghai World Financial Centre, known locally as the Bottle Opener, because it looks like one. Then there are the Toothpick and the Pearl Oriental Tower. The tallest of all is the Shanghai Tower, which could be described as a corkscrew. It has 121 storeys and at 632 metres high, is the second tallest in the world - beaten only by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The tower has been described as a vertical city as it has everything - restaurants, offices, hotels, shops and museums. We saw an exhibition about the treasures on the Silk Road while there.
By way of total contrast to all this steel and glass height, there's the Former French Concession where I was lucky enough to be staying with friends who reside in Shanghai. This area was built by the French in the early 1890s and the buildings in the main are Art Deco apartment blocks and pretty two-storey houses. My friends' apartment was actually across the road from one of Mao Zedong's residences when he lived in Shanghai.
French influences still abound, mainly in the form of bistro-style restaurants and French cafes. In behind the elegant buildings, there are what are known as lilongs, alleyways lined with little terraces of houses - my friends took me to see the modest home of Mao's first wife; no plaque marks her residency.
These are traditional homes which include a communal kitchen for several families. Space is tight but fortunately for them, there are plenty of lovely local parks and people really use them to their max. These parks are beautifully cared for, cleaners are constantly tidying up with very effective brushes they make themselves from bamboo sticks and branches. Scattered about the flower beds are, printed out in Chinese, Confucius's sayings on how to live a good life. In the park, people put that into practice, using the many public exercise machines. They also go around quite unselfconsciously beating parts of their bodies, believing that it's healthy to do so.
The parks can be a cacophony of different musical sounds; people exercising to music, seniors waltzing, a younger lot doing ballet, while a singing teacher practises scales with his pupils.
Another common sight in the FFC is young brides being photographed in white bridal gowns - they hire the gowns purely for the photos, then they actually get married in red and the photos are hung around the venue.
Shopping is big in Shanghai and all the designer label shops are there. Tourists tend to go for certain purchases - pearls, designer bags, spectacles and techy stuff like iPhones and these are found in multi-storey centres scattered around the city. I'm told the fake bags can be tricky - they're illegal for a start. And apparently they sell three different grades of fake designer bag and the word is that you have to badger to be shown the best - it seems very often you will be led into secret passages and rooms behind rooms. And then there are the kind of flaws you can end up with that you don't notice till after you've paid - a Miu Wiu wallet anyone?
The place for pearls is Pearl City. The stalls are lined with trays of pearls of different shades and sizes on long threads. It's fascinating to see the salesperson expertly knot and string them into the length of necklace required.
The optical market sells frames of all types. My friends took me to Bright Eyes Optical where the optician, despite the throng of customers, patiently produced practically every frame in the shop for me to try. I had my prescription on my phone and they were ready five days later, exactly what I wanted at a very good price.
From the point of view of eating out, it was a real advantage to be with friends. They've lived in Shanghai for five years and, having tried tons of restaurants, they've narrowed their favourites down to a tight shortlist. I loved Din Tai Fung in the Shanghai Centre - famous for its dumplings and wontons. On the way in, you can see the chefs dressed head-to-toe in surgical whites making up the wontons, each with their task, one making the dough, another cutting it into tiny circles, a third weighing the filling on tiny scales and a fourth twisting them closed before steaming them.
Not all Chinese make their own at home any more - in my friend's local supermarket, Chinese ladies sit watching soaps on their mobiles as they make up dumplings.
Most visitors from Europe tend to visit three centres in China - Shanghai, Beijing, and Xian, but there is so much more to China, and given the fantastic transport network there, it's easy to explore, though if you're going freelance you will need a driver and interpreter as we did. We took the high-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. Despite the teeming masses, everything worked like clockwork. Toilets (holes in the ground) catered for Chinese and westerners alike. The train left on the dot and it was really comfortable - there were hot water stations in every carriage; the Chinese drink tea constantly.
Our destination was Wuyuan, home to a cluster of authentic villages dating back 1,000 years. Almost everything old was destroyed in the communist regime, so these villages are now being preserved and you have to pay to visit, but tourism is in its infancy, and the villages are so worth it for a glimpse into a forgotten way of life, and for their architectural value. The villagers in Likeng, which we explored, work in the paddy fields and the tea plantations, carrying loads on poles over their shoulders, washing their clothes in the streams, catching carp for dinner from just outside their own front doors.
The villages are extremely picturesque - meandering streams with houses on both banks, narrow winding streets, hump-backed bridges, tall black-and-white narrow houses with horse-head gables and a complete absence of cars - think willow pattern ware.
We discovered too late that it was possible to stay in Likeng when the genial Mrs Li offered us a room in her traditional home, but we had already booked into Hilton Sanqingshan International Resort hotel two hours' drive away. Set in stunning landscape, it was luxurious.
We had a gorgeous room with a view and a great breakfast with a choice of western or Chinese cuisine. The hotel was right next to the Sanqingshan Mountain, the highlight of our trip. A Unesco World Heritage Site, this mountain has it all; for me it was up there with Yosemite in California, Sigiriya in Sri Lanka and Table Mountain in South Africa.
First a cable car to the half-way level - never something I'm relaxed about but the effort was worth it. The mountain is made up of a range of tall, narrow peaks quite unlike anything we have here, like a giant bunch of pencils which stretched upwards. We hiked all day, mainly walking a concrete and rope path that wound round and round the peaks in ever-decreasing circles. It was hot and we could have been carried, but the offer of a sedan - a deck chair tied to bamboo poles resting on two men's shoulders - didn't entice.
In any case, walking in such a lush and dramatic landscape was a delight and around every corner, there was a surprise - fascinating wildlife, stunning rock formations, peak-top lakes, Taoist tombs and the most interesting of all, an 800-year-old Taoist temple, typical of Chinese architecture, one of the few remaining in China. It was manned by a single Taoist priest who told us he'd been there for 20 years with odd forays down the mountain. It was magical, even mystical.
There wasn't a single western visitor apart from myself and my friend. Get there before the hordes descend.
Take two: top attractions
Larks in the parks
The Chinese take their pet songbirds to the park, carrying them in little bamboo cages, complete with porcelain drinking bowls. Chinese bird lovers believe their birds get depressed if they don’t get fresh air.
Food at Hakkasan
Everything about Hakkasan Shanghai is fabulous. The location on the Bund with views of Pudong; the luxurious and very eastern interiors and the food — great ingredients with distinctive Chinese flavours. Try the hairy crab.
* KLM now offers six daily flights between Dublin and Amsterdam, with the opportunity to connect via its award-winning hub to 165 exciting destinations worldwide. KLM operates daily flights between Amsterdam and Shanghai. Return economy fares start from €564 including taxes and charges. Passengers can book online at klm.com or by calling reservations on +353 1 5251804.
* A 27-times winner of the best airport in Europe at the Business Traveller awards, Schiphol Airport allows for seamless connections due to its one-terminal concept.
Sunday Indo Living