I was nearing the end of a three-year trip that started and ended in Asia. I had spent months in Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan and stints in Laos, Indonesia, and Korea, but one glaring omission remained: China. I was always fascinated by China -ancient and expansive- but I kept finding reasons to put it off. I blamed the visa requirements, but the truth is I was daunted.
When I stumbled upon a good flight back to New York via Shanghai, I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance. I also knew about a transit visa that allowed nationals from some countries to stay for up to 144 hours without arranging a visa in advance, so that excuse didn’t hold. While this wouldn’t be my epic journey through China, it was an opportunity to dip a toe in, and maybe take the edge off.
I pictured the city as a concrete jungle gone superspeed, futuristic, and packed with people. (Its population of 24 million is the largest of any city on Earth.) I expected to be challenged by the metro and the menus, but I was most nervous about finding my way in technological limbo. I would have no access to email, Instagram, or, most concerning given my sense of direction, Google Maps. So I planned far more than I usually would, booking back-to-back tours and meetings with locals who could show me the way. Having done all I could, I put my phone on airplane mode and set into the unknown.
I landed in Shanghai at the bleary hour of 3:00 a.m., so the taxi driver was my first guide. I swiftly fell asleep in the car, missing the chance to get my bearings on the way into the Former French Concession. After checking in, I fell into bed.
I woke up hours later to a song squawking through my open window. I went to close the window and get back to bed, when I saw it wasn’t the radio: it was a bird singing in a big, leafy tree. In fact, the whole street was lined with trees -there were no skyscrapers in sight. The sidewalk hummed with sharp dressers on their way to work, street food slingers, hipsters sipping lattes, and bicycles whizzing by. Which reminded me, I had a bike tour to get to.
I met my guide, Julia, at her shop on the edge of the neighborhood. Born and raised in Shanghai, Julia would spend the day guiding me through the former French Concession, British Concession, Japanese Concession, and end at the Bund.
She began with a brief introduction to the city’s tumultuous past. Shanghai was once a sleepy fishing village that became a deepwater port during the Song dynasty (AD 960-1126). The British East India Company slipped in during the 19th century to buy tea, among other things, and sell opium, among other things, to the Chinese.
This led to the first Opium War, in which the British defeated China. The British took control and eventually divvied up the city into the British, French, and American concessions. Japan was given a concession shortly thereafter.
Shanghai became a boomtown, attracting merchants, bankers, and all that comes with them. The city was at its apex during the 1920s, when the Art Deco facades began popping up along the waterfront, also known as “The Bund.” Shanghai hit hard times during the Great Depression and was conquered by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The city finally gained independence in 1949, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army swooped in.
As I biked through the city (which was surprisingly smooth sailing, I might add), I tried to take in the history. While little good can be said of imperialism, the foreign powers did leave behind some gorgeous architecture. Today, locals have made it their own, splitting townhouses built for wealthy Brits into apartments and hanging laundry on wires between redbrick buildings. In the alleys below, mahjong is played on folding card tables.
We stopped for a snack at a smoky stall with a couple sidewalk tables. Julia ordered a round of jianbing, a thin crepe cooked fresh and filled with scallions, cilantro, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, and a crunchy cracker. Folded up and eaten on the go, it’s a popular choice for breakfast. I would eat it all day, but by midday the shops close and storefronts return to their alter egos as electronics shops and stationery stores.
We hopped back on our bikes and rode towards People’s Square, the political center of the city. We passed skyscrapers and highways, and between them livable pockets packed with greenery. People’s Square is another place with a layered past, a former horse racing club that was taken over by the government when gambling was outlawed. In the 1990s, Julia told me, the square was totally transformed into a cultural center. Today, it’s home to the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Shanghai Grand Theater, and the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.
We boarded our bikes for a dash to the grand finale: the Bund, the stretch of Art Deco banks and trading houses from colonial times. While the aging facades are graceful (especially when lit up with twinkle lights at night), it’s the view over the water that took my breath away.
Across the Huangpu River is Pudong, with one of the most instantly recognizable skylines in the world. With its blend of geometric shapes and holographic colors, it could have easily been designed by the Jetsons. Incredibly, I learned, there was almost nothing there in 1987. I jostled with the Chinese and international tourists for a photo.
With that, I left Julia and set out to meet my final guide of the day, Meredith. A former colleague from New York, she moved to Shanghai years ago for a job. I was thrilled to have her to translate all I had learned. We met on a rooftop along the Bund and my head buzzed with questions about the city. How did she get around? Where did she go?
She told me, “Shanghai moves so fast it’s dangerous to get overly attached to specific joints and restaurants.” One day, your favorite coffee shop will have disappeared and transformed into something new. But there’s a good side of this, too. Shanghai is a city that innovates, constantly finding its own way of doing things.
According to her, the city is not a technological limbo. Far from it -instead of Uber, there’s DiDi. Instead of Venmo, there’s Alipay. Instead of reviews on Google, there’s SmartShanghai. Shanghai, she told me, was quite accessible once you got used to it. Looking back on the day, I realized I had found it quite accessible, too.
Telling her about my plans for the next day, I felt silly for having booked another tour. After today, I thought, I could certainly manage to rent a bike and ride to the jianbing stall and the museum on my own. That is, if the jianbing stall is still standing. And if not, well, I’d just find myself somewhere new.