Shanghai – the Pearl of the Orient

Shanghai – the Pearl of the Orient

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From a small fishing town, Shanghai, also known as the Pearl of the Orient, has emerged as the eighth largest city in the world, drawing millions of tourists and businessmen alike. China’s largest city spread over an area of about 6341 sq km, is the epicenter of all business activities in the country and is well-equipped to handle that responsibility.

This fishing town soon became a busy seaport and is now one of the largest cargo ports in the world—talk about development! Of course it’s strategic location helped in trading with the West. The name itself, which translates to ‘on the upper reaches of the sea’ tell of its coastal location on the banks of the Yangtze River, Asia’s longest river, in East China. Shanghai faces the East China Sea and has the Huangpu River running through the city, with the two major commercial centers of the city, Puxi and Pudong, on either side.

The city has seen its share of troubles, but has triumphed over them all to become the industrial capital of the People’s Republic of China. It is also the country’s most important cultural, commercial, financial and communication centers. The main language here is Mandarin or the local dialect Shanghaianese, which sounds similar to Japanese and unlike Mandarin has no tones. The city is a melting pot of cultures. The population is predominantly Buddhist or Taoist, but major ethnic cultures are represented.

Seven out of every ten visitors to China come to visit Shanghai and it is not difficult to see why. Shanghai is one of the best examples where East meets West. Rooted in Chinese tradition, the city could be mistaken for any western metropolitan with imposing modern architecture and well planned infrastructure. The Donghai Bridge, 32.5 km in length, linking mainland Shanghai to the Yangshan islands is the longest cross-sea bridge in the world.

Shanghai River

Shanghai River

With a population of over 16 million people, the city is one of the most populated in the world. Shanghai enjoys more economic freedom than other Chinese cities. Its open policy attracts foreign investors, which in turn expands business opportunities inviting more expatriates and increasing consumerism. Local brands and fake items can be found along with top-of-the-line high quality international brands.

One of the most important commercial centers of the city is the Pudong New Area, literally meaning ‘the east side of the river’. It houses Shanghai’s stock market building, the Jin Mao tower that ranks as the fifth tallest skyscraper in the world, the imposing Oriental Pearl Tower, the city’s international airport and the first commercial magnetic levitation train (Maglev).

Harbor at Shanghai, 1875

Harbor at Shanghai, 1875

On the opposite side of the river is Puxi. Old alleyways and houses are making way for swanky high-rise apartments, museums, theatres and malls. At one count there was estimated to be over 3,000 high-rise buildings in the city. The city is growing at such a fast pace that it is said to have one-fifth of all the world’s construction cranes!

Now preparing to host the 2010 World Expo, the city is once again preparing to transform and reconstruct itself. Major development changes are already underway but not at the cost of the environment. State-of the art urban structures are interspersed with green areas. The city wants to add the sobriquet of being a ‘green city’ along with its many names and live up to the slogan for the Expo ‘Better City—Better Life’. City planners are already working on an elaborate project of building an eco-city on the wetlands of Dongtan at the mouth of the Yangtze river. When completed, it would be the first such city in the world which would be self sustaining and would cause no appreciable damage to the environment.

Given its strategic location and importance, it is easily accessible from most places in the world. The city is well connected with the world with its two airports, Hongqiao and Pudong International airports. Needless to say, Pudong has the second highest traffic in China given the nmber of people it attracts. Shanghai also has two main railway stations, Shanghai Railway station and Shanghai South railway station that connects with the rest of the country for those inclined to take it a little easy and are not in any particular hurry. More than six expressways lead into the city from Beijing and cities around Shanghai although traffic concerns are a given.

Within the city too, it is relatively easy to get around. Given the sizable population, public transportation becomes key. Buses, taxis and the metro system are indispensable while commuting in the city. Another alternative, quintessentially Chinese, is to ride a bicycle.

The subway system is a faster way of covering the distances in the traffic-clogged city and is relatively inexpensive. You could even opt for a rechargeable Jiaotong Card if you plan to use the subway fairly often. The advantage is that the card can also be used to pay for bus, ferry and even taxi rides, The fare will be automatically deducted from the card and you could keep adding more denominations to it depending on the use. The city’s Pearl Mass Transit railway is aboveground and also a good way to commute.

If you prefer to take a taxi, always keep a business card of your destination written in Chinese so you could show to the cab driver since English is not understood by many, and even if you speak Mandarin there is always the chance of a confusion arising due to improper pronunciation or tone. Buses, again, unless you are sure of the bus routes, it is better to avoid them since they are less comfortable than the metros or taxis. So get on only if you have plenty of time to spare and a good sense of adventure.

Shanghai Dock

Shanghai Dock

To take the city in its totality you have to explore every nook and corner which can only be done on foot.

Walk into the small shops, meet the locals and pick up a few souvenirs and oddities, but never forget to carry a map. If you are not one to take chances and would prefer to be pre-armed with as much information as you can, visit the China National Tourist Offices’ (CNTO) website


There are numerous places for one to visit after all the day’s work is done. If you are a knowledge seeker then museums might interest you. There are many to choose from including the Shanghai musuem, Madame Tussaud’s Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, China Sex culture museum, the Propaganda Poster art Center and the Shanghai Music Conservatory Oriental Musical Instrument Museum. They are sure to keep you occupied throughout your stay in the city.

If you are more of an outdoors person, the options are endless. The Bund area is a great place to take a stroll. Admire the colonial architecture and buildings such as the Peace Hotel, Customs house, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank among many others. Stroll into the old city just across the street for a whole new world. You wouldn’t believe you are in the same city!

Cross the Huangpu river by ferry or take a cruise along the 27 km river to the mouth of the Yangtze river. You will see evidence of it being the largest port…wharves, tankers, all busy at work. View the panoramic city from either the Oriental Pearl tower or the Jin Mao tower…it is sure to leave you breathless.

Shanghai is also making a mark as the region’s fashion and shopping capital. Some of the most frequented shopping areas in the city are Huaihai Lu, Maoming Lu, Xingle Lu and not to forget the ‘number one shopping street in China’ Nanjing Lu. These places offer a variety of smaller shops where you can get a variety of items but you need to be prepared to face the crowd. The sea of people can intimidate someone not used to it but once you brave the crowds, you are sure to find good bargains.

Dongjiadu Fabric market or the South Bund Fabric market as it is known now will leave you spoilt for choice. You can pick up everything from silks to cashmere and hundreds of other kinds of fabrics at cheaper prices than anywhere else in the city. The market also has on-site tailors making it a one-stop shop for that perfect outfit.

Of course, how can you come to China and not pick up a fake designer bag or watch? There are many markets that offer knock-off branded goods and you have to have a keen eye to spot the difference. If you would rather not face the crowd or take a chance with the quality of the product, the city offers numerous department stores and malls like the City Mall to make your shopping experience complete.

Other sights of the city include the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, reminiscent of the city’s Jewish past; taking a gondola ride in one of the water villages near the city, such as Tongli, Nanxun and Zhou Zhuang, passing traditional bridges, old-fashioned stone houses and gardens; the impressive Jade Buddha Temple which houses two statues imported from Burma, one of which weighs three tones and is 1.95 m tall; St Ignatius Cathedral or the Xujiahui Cathedral, located on Puxi Road is the largest cathedral in the city and was featured in the Steven Speilberg movie ‘Empire of the Sun’; or visit the Wen Miao market open every Sunday which also has a thousand year old temple dedicated to Confucius.

Shanghai is a truly international city with restaurants serving food from all over the world but when in Shanghai, try the local fare. The city is known for its own style of dim sums especially steamed pork dumplings (xiao long bao). Seasoning in this part of the country is kept to a minimum. People here use more of sweet ingredients in their food than in any other part of China. Other local delicacies include freshwater fish and shellfish which are found in plenty, preserved duck eggs (pi dan), smelly tofu (chou dou fu) and the seasonal hairy crabs (da zha xie). To get the authentic flavor, try one of the many roadside stalls. Of course, Chinese specialties from the rest of the country is widely available.

The weather in Shanghai is extreme ranging from icy cold winters to humid summers. The winter months of November through February and the hot and sultry months of July and August are not the best times to visit Shanghai. There are a few typhoons during the year but none in the recent years that have caused any considerable damage. March or September and October are considered the best time to be in the city but that also means high costs of hotel rooms and overbooked hotels so you need to plan and book your stay in advance. The Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China and most of the city is out on the streets celebrating and visiting relatives. It is a good time to taste the local flavor and join in the festivities.

A simple handshake and the exchange of business cards with a slight bow of the head is now the common way of greeting in Shanghai. Cards and gifts should be given and received with both hands and one should never go empty-handed if invited to someone’s house. A basket of fruit is a safe bet on all occasions. Learn the use of chopsticks and a few words of Mandarin. Your effort to blend in will greatly please your host and always take off your footwear before entering the house. Chinese people take great offense to being criticized in public, so make sure to not call attention to their mistakes or contradict them publicly.

Make sure that when you enter the country, your passport has a minimum validity of 6 months beyond the date of your arrival. All visitors to mainland China are required to have a visa. A list of Chinese embassies and consulates can be found at The Chinese currency is called Yuan (RMB) or more commonly known as Kuai or Renminbi, and is not convertible outside the country.

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