Prepare your visit to Shanghai – and learn from Wojtek’s experience.
“The fiction world seemed so much more interesting compared to the reality of everyday. However, when I discovered the joy of travel, I realized that all of these – the adventure, the challenge, the unknown – can actually be found in reality, because the world is so wonderfully diverse.” – Wojtek (28), traveller, consultant in an international company
HTD: For work reasons you have already been living on a different continent for a couple of months. Where does your openness for the “unknown” come from? Why do you like to travel?
When I was younger, I used to read a lot of books, and they filled my imagination with incredible stories of exotic places. The fictional world seemed so much more interesting compared to the reality of everyday life. However, when I discovered the joy of travel, I realized that all of this – the adventure, the challenge, the unknown – could actually be found in reality, because the world is so wonderfully diverse.
HTD: You are currently living in China. Is it possible to prepare oneself for the new culture before actually arriving?
There are two answers: yes and no – and both are true. Yes, you should spend as much time as possible reading up on the local culture, the history, way of thinking, the rules of conduct, etc. – so that you better prepare for the challenges of understanding and expressing yourself. Language is naturally a big part of that, but linguistic mastery is just the first step. What you should really do is to try to understand the way the people, that you are going to encounter, think, in order to facilitate not merely an exchange of information, but a genuine dialogue. Getting immersed in the culture is probably the best way to prepare for that, so try to get your hands on movies, books and people representing the country and culture you are going to visit. It will be of invaluable help later on. But the answer is also no, because there is nothing that can truly prepare you for all the surprising and even shocking differences you will encounter. An open and curious mind will be your best guide.
HTD: How do you perceive Shanghai and what are your favourite places in the city?
As I have been living rather than visiting the city, my experience in Shanghai has been far more defined by people I met than the places I have seen. On the one hand, the city is overwhelmed with modern construction, which consists almost exclusively of commercial skyscrapers, ubiquitous shopping malls and vast swathes of residential complexes. Shanghai is very much a new city, and besides a few commercialized touristy areas it is difficult to find anything that would represent Old Shanghai, much less be a pleasant area to stroll around in. The Bund – a historical and architectural legacy of colonial times – is a rare exception, and that is so only because it survived the upheaval of the cultural revolution. Unlike many European cities, Shanghai is not pedestrian-friendly, with alleys and squares to be simply enjoyed. But you can still find the Shanghai and China that most Western travellers have in mind when they come here. I was very fortunate to be guided by the locals in experiencing what the city has to offer. I visited countless restaurants offering food from all over China and beyond, karaoke clubs where the locals sing their hearts out to melancholic Chinese pop, ‘tea palaces’ where you can spend peaceful hours savouring different blends of teas – to just name a few of Shanghai’s offerings.
HTD: Is it difficult to find a peaceful corner in Shanghai and to leave ‘the big city life’ for a moment?
I found my quiet corner in the Yu Garden, a traditional Chinese residence in the very centre of this city of 25 million. Although just steps away from the crowded streets of Shanghai’s Old Town, Yu Garden embraces you with the silence of thick walls. It pleases with the serene harmony of its ponds, trees, rocky outcrops and typical Chinese pavilions displaying works of calligraphy and painting. Come at the right time and you will have the Yu gardens almost exclusively to yourself, to fall into quiet contemplation in one of its many scenic spots.
Another place of spiritual retreat which I found is St. Francis Xavier Church in Xiaonanmen. It is located in a very unique district of the Shanghai’s Old City. To get there, you need to meander between the narrow alleys, street vendors selling colourful textiles, numerous food stalls, and houses which are yet to see the improvement brought to the neighbouring areas by Shanghai’s development. Every time I visit this church, I see myself walking back in time – perhaps a fleeting experience as it is apparent that this intriguing amalgam of the old and the new will not endure the city’s aggressive development plans. Half of the area has already been demolished to make room for new 30-floor apartments. Within than environment stands St. Francis Xavier Church, one of the oldest in the city, with its gates always open, a quiet haven from the noise and crowds outside.
HTD: Any other places you would recommend to anyone preparing to visit Shanghai?
There are, of course, must-see sights that make up every tourist’s itinerary like the Bund (a long road reminiscent of the British/European colonial past), parts of the French Concession (part of Shanghai occupied by the French back in the XIX/XX century) like Xintiandi and its slightly less touristy sister, Tian Zi Fang. As a contrast to all this, pay a visit to the east side of the river, to marvel at the huge glass offices towering over the riverbank. Best views onto the city below are from the 58th floor rooftop terrace in the Ritz-Carlton in Lujiazui.
To see what Shanghai looked like before modern influences, take a day tour of the Old Town, where you can see the picturesque Yu Garden, visit the temples of Confucius, Dao as well as the Chinese Mosque set up by the Uygur minority from Xinjiang. There’s also an interesting footprint of Catholic history, too, around Xuijiahui, where the first Jesuits following Matteo Ricci established an orphanage and school, which later became an art and sculpture factory for these children..
HTD: Thank you very much, Wojtek, for offering us your insights into this bustling metropolis! (mar)