Saturday, September 19, 2009

9 Hours in Shanghai

I've always wanted to visit mainland China. The closest I ever got was a month in Hong Kong and a couple of weeks in Taiwan. When this opportunity to work in Malaysia came up and I was looking at airfare one of the lower fare flights had a 9 hour layover in Shanghai so that's the one I chose reasoning that 9 hours is better than nothing. Of course I should have checked first if one needed a visa to leave the airport.

Surfing the internet after the fact wasn't much help since the information was contradictory. Some claimed that you need a visa no matter what. Others that as long as your connecting flight left withing 24 hours to third country (or 48, even there the information was kind of confusing) you didn't need a visa. I just crossed my fingers and figured I'll see what happens once I am on the ground in Shanghai.

As luck would have it (bad for most travelers, but worked out for me) the counter attendant in KL for Malaysia Airlines informed me that due to some regulations my luggage could not be checked straight through to Chicago and I would have to recheck my bags in Pudong and check in at the AA counter to get my tickets to Chicago. This of course would mean that I would have to clear Chinese customs first.

To make a long story short, after waiting in line for over an hour and being sent hitter and yon by Chinese customs officials I found myself on the other side of the Silk Curtain. Figuring valor is the better part of discretion I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth (how's that for mixing metaphors) I found a place to keep store my luggage and followed the signs to the Maglev.

For those of you who don't know the Shanghai Maglev is the world's first commercial high speed Magnetic Levitation train capable of speeds over 500 km/h (300 mph). There are simpler and more direct ways to get to the heart of Shanghai, but the geek in me couldn't pass up the opportunity. Its around $10 for a round trip ticket and the train ride itself is only 10 minutes each way. The train runs only from Pudong Airpor to Longyang Road Station and there's not much to see of interest around Longyang itself, but the experience is definitely worth it. Its eerie to travel that fast and that quietly as you watch the world outside your window zip by. The train hits a top speed of 431 km/h (268 mph). And judging by how full the train was and how many people people were snapping pictures of the speed readout in each car I wasn't the only geek along for the ride. Once we arrived at Longyang there was a taxi stand at the bottom of the station and from there you can pretty much get to anywhere in Shanghai. Taxi prices are really, really low so its the best option for travelers pressed for time. As in Taipei, since most of the taxi drivers do not speak English or read latin alphabets, before you get into the cab a dispatcher hands you a sheet of paper with the most popular attractions listed in both English and Chinese (it also includes the prices of the ride so you don't have to worry about haggling) and you simply point at the destination you want and the taxi driver can read the Chinese characters underneath and everyone lives happily ever after. Hang on to that piece of paper since it will be handy for the return trip. I couldn't find the Maglev station on the sheet and when I hailed a cab for the return trip I had a couple of panicked moments since the driver didn't seem to understand what I meant when I said Maglev or Longyang, but I pulled out the Maglev ticket itself and that did the trick.

Shanghai is a huge city with a population of over 20 million. 9 hours isn't that much time so you have to pick and choose your spots carefully, but having read about the Bund and seen it in the movies I knew that would be my next destination.

Unfortunately turns out most of the waterfront is still undergoing renovation so the waterfront itself is hidden behind boards and it wasn't quite the experience I had hoped for, but it was still worth the trip since I got some great views of the Shanghai skyline. Chicago is no stranger to powerful skylines and KL has the Petronas towers, but this was truly something else.

I walked around the Bund a little bit, but since I didn't plan out any specific locations on the Bund that I wanted to see other than the waterfront itself I just meandered around aimlessly. This might not be everyone's cup of tea, but often when visiting a new place I just pick a direction and start walking with no specific destination in mind. Sometimes this pays off and sometimes not, but it does give one the opportunity to get a true sense of place. I did go down the Bun Sightseeing Tunnel, but judging by the quality of the Engrish signs around the entry figured it might be a better idea to spend my time elsewhere so a meandering I went.

Glad I did. Reversing direction I headed up the Bund and found myself on Fuyou Road and its mass humanity and tourist shops. I am not really a shopper, nor particularly a fan of massing humanity, but the riot of colors, goods, restaurants and people is a real experience. Its that sense of place again. Chicago isn't exactly a small provincial village, but Shanghai takes it to a different level.
9 hours is not nearly enough and eventually I had to hop a cab and head back to the Maglev and back to the airport, but I was glad I took the chance of a lengthy layover in Shanghai. While this doesn't really count as a real visit to China it certainly reinforced my desire to come back some day and truly explore the country and all it has to offer.

1 comment:

  1. You did much better than us when we had an 8 hour layover in Shanghai! There were 5 of us then (Haffiz, Farah, Emilia, Hui Ling and I) so we didn't really think of getting a ride on a cab. The little mandarin I speak was totally useless... I think I was only successfull at saying "How much?" and "Thank you"!!!

    I have to agree MagLev was an awesome experience!