Old and New: Hangzhou and Shanghai

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Before I really get into the meat of this entry… The flight from Shenyang to Shanghai was my first brush with anything above basic economy class. J and I checked in with the ultra-budget local carrier, Spring Airlines, to find that we’d been bumped up to “Spring Plus”; not really a full-on “First Class”, it nevertheless had bigger, comfier seats, more legroom, a meal and free beverages (practically unheard of on an ultra-budget flight), a heavier baggage allowance, and a dedicated flight attendant. We’d showed up at the airport expecting to cram into tiny, cramped seats, and instead were (mildly) pampered. I call that a win.


Shanghai is big. Like, really big. Like, 24 million people big (34 million, if you count metro area). It’s so big that to get from the airport to our hostel in the west end of the city, we had to take a high-speed maglev train — at 300 km/h — followed by 40 minutes on a Shanghai metro line. Door to door, we travelled for over an hour to get from the airport to the Rock & Wood Hostel.

The hostel was damn near top-notch. While our double-bed room was a little cramped, it had its own washroom, with a separate shower (as opposed to the dreaded “try not to trip over the toilet and drench all your toilet paper as you hose yourself down in the tiny bathroom” setup in most places). And the common areas were beautiful; a big lounge area which doubles as a café, an attached sun room, and a beautifully landscaped little back garden, complete with a small fish pond.

A history of Tianzifang (Photo courtesy of J)

The first half-day in Shanghai was a rough one for us. We’d both been experiencing some tummy rumblings, so we tried to keep the adventuring to a minimum. I left my camera at the hostel as we headed out to Tianzifang, a touristy little arts and crafts market in the French Concession. Tianzifang is a sort of warren of little alleyways crammed with vendor stalls and micro-bars, where you can get anything from knock-off action figures, to shoes and clothes, to Tibetan prayer beads, to caricatures of Mr. Bean (why am I seeing Mr. Bean everywhere in China?!).

Mr Bean strikes again! (Photo courtesy of J)

Before braving the Tianzifang crowds, however, we took a brief detour in the nearby Dapuqiao Metro Station to hit up Super Vegan, a — you guessed it — vegan restaurant; actually our first purely vegan restaurant since we arrived in China. The food was excellent, and it’s easy to see why the restaurant currently has a 4.5/5 on Happy Cow (I thoroughly disagree with the only bad review on there; the staff were totally fine).

J ducked into a small tea shop to bask in its air conditioning, and while we were in there, one of the sales staff picked up on her Northeast Chinese accent and invited us to sit down for a small tea ceremony; it turned out that the salesman was himself from Shenyang! We tasted a number of wonderful teas, and, unable to help ourselves, left with hundreds of yuan in tea.

Our Dongbei tea expert (Photo courtesy of J)

That night was an early one, as we’d be heading to Hangzhou in the morning.


Only an hour outside Shanghai by train (mind you, that train travels at 300 km/h…), Hangzhou is an study in contrast. Sparkling new highrises loom over ancient temples; a Starbucks and a McDonalds look out over lotus farms on the West Lake; and the city is crisscrossed both by centuries-old canals and a shiny new subway system.

A fisherman out on Hangzhou’s West Lake

We met up with two of J’s friends; Mike and Yini, both of whom she’d met while they were studying at the University of Ottawa. Mike had to return to work after treating us to a fantastic vegetarian lunch, but Yini — skipping out on a day of studying for the LSAT — joined us as we wandered down toward the lake.

Our first stop along the lake was the Yue Fei Temple; a temple built around the mausoleum of Yue Fei, a Song Dynasty military hero. As with the Yonghe Temple and Confucian Temple in Beijing, Yue Fei’s Temple was meticulously kept up. While it’s been rebuilt several times (not surprising, given that the original was built in the 1220s), many of the statues were original, as was (at least I suspect) the tomb itself.

Yue Fei’s tomb and (slightly crooked) monument.

The crowds were quite a bit smaller than they had been at the Confucian Temple in Beijing, but there were still plenty of people wandering the temple grounds, including a particularly persistent photobomber, who kept jumping into my shot as I was trying to capture a picturesque doorway. After the third foiled attempt to photograph the door, I gave up and moved on.

“What’s that? You want a nice shot of the door? Tough luck!”

From the Temple, we crossed the street and wandered along the shore of West Lake. All along the lake, large swaths of lotus bloom; Yini told us the lotus actually gets cultivated for its roots and its seed pods, and indeed, powdered lotus root features pretty heavily in Hangzhou’s culinary tradition.

So many lotus blooms

Mike joined up with us again in the evening, just in time to treat us to yet another vegetarian meal, and Yini showered us with gifts (tea, lotus root powder, and traditional Hangzhou treats), before the two of them escorted us back to Hangzhou’s East Train Station for our ride back to Shanghai.

Stray Thoughts:

  • Seriously, Shanghai is big. We only saw a tiny bit of it in the day and a half we were there.
  • I wish I hadn’t been sick in Shanghai. It would have been nice to see more of the French Concession, or to see the Bund at night (the Bund will feature in my next post). In reality, I’d end up getting worse and worse, until I wound up spending a whole day in bed in Shenzhen.
  • I would hold Hangzhou up as the new paragon of idealized Chinese development; the shiny, modern city that exists in harmony with nature. Large swaths of green space are preserved even as higher and higher density development goes in. In the past few years, it seems like China’s government has finally taken notice of the intense pollution endemic to so many of its cities, and is trying to reverse the trend (for instance, they’re pumping so much money into solar power that they hope to have something like 15% of the country running on solar power within five years). Hangzhou looks like it could be the goal that other cities aim for.
  • Presented without further comment, a gold bike, in Hangzhou.

    Bling bling
  • Of all the cities we visited in Mainland China, I think I’d pick Hangzhou as my favourite.
  • I’ll have a whole post about stray thoughts after the last of my chronological entries; a big one is the issue of revisionist or selective history, which I really started to notice at Yue Fei’s Tomb.

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