Is this the greatest city in the world, I wondered, on the drive into town, as the sheer scale of Pudong, Shanghai’s upstart suburb, took my breath away. Well, it is the greatest city in the world, at least by population (this is China, after all). With nearly 25 million residents, it’s the most populous ‘city proper’ in the world. Yet, as I discovered, Shanghai can easily feel cosy and intimate.
I was having difficulty processing even the fleeting glimpses I had stolen from the hotel limo–of the nakedly ambitious architecture, the sense of order and composure, the squeaky cleanliness of it all. All in all, more First World than the First World, and definitely not the China I had expected. But there’s an antidote for everything. In the boutiquey embrace of the Andaz Xintiandi, my home for the next few nights, I started getting my bearings back.
Shanghai is a masterly act of urban planning, an aspect of the city that is well celebrated, as is its towering influence on the Chinese psyche and culture. Hip yet rooted, outward looking and inward gazing, global but local, the Andaz Xintiandi is like a microcosm of Shanghai. In any case, given its size, Shanghai should only be savoured in small bites. A short while later, I was having my amuse-bouche.
M50, a disused industrial space along the Suzhou Creek on Moganshan Road (the source of the ‘M’ in the name), was redeveloped as an arts hub by Shanghai artist Xue Song in 2000. A soft rain ushered me indoors, where art galleries and artists’ studios were quietly pushing artistic boundaries. I encountered sexualised portraits of petite, childlike figures, cute polar bears in several shades of pastel, a loaf of bread serving as a site of creative expression.
This wasn’t immersion enough, I decided. If Shanghai was the ice bucket challenge, I was going to be soaked right and proper. The nice folks at Andaz were only too eager to help. Next morning, I joined one of their most intriguing–and popular–excursions, the Shanghai sidecar tour. The sidecars were attached to vintage Chang Jiang 750 motorcycles dating from the 1950s. I’m not a two-wheeler type but I thought they were beauties. A motorcycle junkie would probably have made love to them right there.
Did I tell you Shanghai can be windy? On a good day, you only have to hold on to your headgear. On a bad day, your clothes will likely blow off. It was a good day and, with me clutching my Chinese army winter hat for dear life, my guide and I sputtered off to the French Concession, where we made a stop at the Garden Hotel. It used to the French Club in the 1930s and still retains its impressive ballroom. It was also one of the few clubs at the time to allow women, which made it extremely popular. My guide had this nugget to offer: apparently, Russian ‘taxi’ girls could be hired here for a dance or two (called so because you could rent them by the hour). After the revolution, Chairman Mao stayed here briefly. (Or did he? Thereby hangs a tale.) A ride up to the top in the glass elevator yielded nice views of the Concession, including a glimpse of a Russian Orthodox Church (if you know where to look).
There’s that side of Shanghai that most tourists are familiar with: all gleaming glass towers and stratospheric shopping malls. And, then, there’s the Old Town. The streets grew narrower as we approached it. The contrast could not have been greater. We finally stopped in front of a small shop selling youtiao, a popular Shanghainese snack (it’s essentially a long strip of fried dough–not healthy!). Youtiao in hand, we walked into a shikumen, a townhouse characterised by high brick walls and a stone gate, and a quintessential Shanghai residence. Now sub-divided among several residents, this was the real deal, warts and all, unlike the poshed up ones in Xintiandi which now house stylish cafÃ©s and boutiques. Inside the gate, a notice board advertised rooms for rent, and I couldn’t help but notice the high rentals. Clearly, it’s the same story everywhere.
And with that, my sidecar tour came to an end. Too short. I headed off to Shanghai’s most famous sight: The Bund. This waterfront development, with its vertical gardens, walkways and views, stretches for nearly a mile along the Huangpu river and is chock-a-block with turn-of-the-20th century buildings in the Beaux Arts style . If Shanghai has a ‘look’, this is it. Across, lie the gleaming skyscrapers of Lujiazui, and you’ll recognise the Oriental Pearl Tower instantly from the Shanghai selfies that may have popped up on your Facebook feed. Known as Shanghai’s version of the Space Needle, it’s a photo-op nobody misses. I surprised myself by walking the length of the Bund, all the way to the tranquil setting of the 1559-built Yu Garden. Next door, at the even older City of God Temple, devout Taoists shuffled about with incense sticks.
I hope I’ve not led you to believe that I survived all this while on that solitary yuitao alone. My generous hosts at Hyatt ensured that I was well fed. The cuisine of Shanghai is a revelation, a far cry from the overspiced Chinese food we’re used to in India. With delicate sweet and sour flavours, and a bold use of pickled ingredients, iconic dishes include braised pork in brown sauce, drunken chicken, and beggar’s chicken. I sampled several of these local delicacies at Hai Pai, the Andaz’s signature Chinese restaurant. With an emphasis on home-style cooking and fresh produce, Hai Pai literally means “Shanghainese spirit”, and that’s one thing I was happy to get drunk on. There was also a lovely lunch at the Park Hyatt, which has a commanding location on floors 79-93 of the Shanghai World Financial Centre. Between courses, I feasted on the view.
That wasn’t all. The streets were heaving with goodies. Snaking queues even outside modest dumpling houses testified to the Shanghainese passion for food. When I needed some quick succour, I simply popped across the road from the Andaz to ‘ShenShang Beef Noodle’, where our lack of a common language was bridged effortlessly by a pictorial menu. Not far from the hotel was a street with seafood restaurants packed like sardines. You know, the sort of establishments where you point at the produce and they cook it for you on the spot. I grabbed a cheese tart here, a crab claw there, until I was stuffed to the gills.
Next morning was a Sunday and at the People’s Park I stumbled upon a strange sight. Open umbrellas with notices stuck on them lay propped up on the garden paths, with their animated owners sitting behind them. This was the Shanghai Marriage Market, where parents of marriageable children, often without their consent, exchange notes and try to make matches.The success rate is pretty low, I gathered, as no one in Shanghai wants to get married in a hurry anymore.
By evening, walking past Hermes’ Shanghai outpost, which has an understated location in a heritage building, I was able to locate the Andaz easily, thanks to the inviting LED display that had bathed the entire building in a warm, multi-coloured glow. I did stop at the flea market that the Andaz sets up on weekends, where everything from exotic pets to traditional jewellery and fussy handbags were on offer.
Back in my sleek, contemporary quarters, I noted approvingly that the bowl of Shanghai’s iconic White Rabbit candy, which I had been demolishing diligently, had been dutifully refilled. I switched on the TV. Since I no longer own one, watching it is my guilty pleasure when I’m travelling. But, increasingly, I feel no compulsion to move beyond the hotel’s publicity channel. Is it because they’re so good these days? Hyatt is no exception and they’re currently running a hard-hitting World of Hyatt ‘Understanding’ campaign. It was so riveting, I kept watching it on a loop. This is the corporate spiel if you’re interested: “World of Hyatt is built on the simple idea that a little understanding goes a long way. Listening, noticing others, extending a meaningful gesture can make all the difference in helping you be your best.” Then it gets to the point: “Understanding also inspires loyalty.” Loyalty programme bait aside, if these are indeed Hyatt’s brand values, then I’m smitten, hook, line and sinker.
But I haven’t gotten to the best part of my trip yet. My debut Shanghai trip will forever be etched in my memory as the moment I fell in love...with the Toto automatic potty. Thank you, Andaz. Considering it’s $10,000 a pop, it’s no surprise I hadn’t had the pleasure before (and,no, I haven’t been to toilet utopia Japan–AndazTokyo, are you listening?). Our sorry lives are sorrier without this marvel of civilisation. Here’s a potty that lifts up its lid in greeting as you approach, warms the seat to a derriere friendly temperature, washes and dries you at the press of a button, then flushes itself and shuts the lid. And it can play a tune or two. Okay, okay, there was much more to Shanghai; I had barely scratched the surface. And that’s why I can’t figure out why busloads of tourists simply rush through. Shanghai is cosmopolitan and lively, a true world city made up of a million fleeting and memorable encounters, and it needs to be savoured slowly. And, if you’re lucky, over several visits.
Getting There: Air India and China Eastern fly direct from Delhi to Shanghai. Fares start from approximately â‚¹24,000 round trip. As for myself, I flew Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, where I had a choice of four airline lounges and the opportunity to take a hot shower.
Getting Around: Taxis are easily available in Shanghai but tend to be expensive. Don’t leave your hotel without the hotel card which has the name and address in Chinese. The Shanghai Metro has an extensive network, is cheap, and has English signage. You will see neat stacks of bicycles all over Shanghai. These can be rented by the hour using an app, then dropped off at your destination. There are dedicated cycling lanes, so this is a fairly safe option in Shanghai.
Where to Stay: Andaz Xintiandi, a Hyatt hotel, is a five-star boutique property in Shanghai’s premier entertainment, shopping and commercial district. Tariffs from CNY 1,600. If you can afford it, their penthouse suites are truly amazing (CNY 70,000 a night, which Jackie Chan can clearly afford). Core benefits at the first Andaz in Asia include complimentary wi-fi, free minibar soft drinks and snacks, and free happy hours 6-8pm at Xuan Bar. Their DigiValet, an iPad-based guest room control system, is pretty cool (you can even order food on it). F&B options include local Shanghainese food, Japanese cuisine and Continental. If you get homesick, they even have a chicken korma on the in-room dining menu. Hyatt has several hotels in Shanghai. These include Hyatt on the Bund, Park Hyatt, and the Grand Hyatt. Park Hyatt occupies floors 79 to 93 of the Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC),also known as “The Vertical Complex City”, making it one of the highest hotels in the world. It offers soaring views of the city skyline and the Huangpu river. Similarly, the Grand Hyatt, which has a stunning atrium, is housed in the iconic Jin Mao Tower.
In case you want to experience an Andaz closer home, there’s one in Delhi now. Located in Aerocity, it promises 401 reasons to fall in love with Delhi, one for each room. A highlight is AnnaMaya, a modern European food hall. Tariff from â‚¹7,650. See hyatt.com. Also see worldofhyatt.com/understanding–you might just be tempted to signup for their loyalty programme.
What to See & Do: Sights include the Bund, French Concession and Old Town. The Shanghai Museum at People’s Square, with its massive collection of Chinese art, is worth a visit (entryfree; see shanghaimuseum.net/en). Both Yu Garden and City God Temple are popular, ticketed attractions. There are great deals to be had in the warren of shops surrounding Yu Garden. I especially liked the ones where everything was priced CNY10 or less. Head to Shanghai Circus World to see Chinese acrobats in action (shcircusworld.com).
The Shanghai Sidecar Tour, which Andaz Xintiandi can book for you, comes in three options: 1hr, 2hr and 4hr. I’d recommend the 4hr, anything less is too rushed, unless you’ve been around Shanghai already (from CNY 800 per sidecar–takes two passengers; shanghaiinsiders.com). The speed is kept at a steady 25km/hour, so they’re quite safe.
The famed Zhouzhuang water town is worth the trip out of town.