|Awesome beer and food at Boxing Cat|
To get to Shanghai from Qingdao is a fair old journey, as are most places we wanted to visit in China. Because we had only decided at the last minute and booked the day before, we were only able to get standard class seats (hard seats), but given that it was a 19 hour journey we were hoping for hard sleeper cabins. In China the trains are often full and often for long distance routes they book up a few days in advance for anything but hard seat. Not the greatest for flexible travellers such as ourselves, although being forced into hard seats meant a significant cost saving (for a journey over 1000km it was about the same price as Sheffield to Chorley back home, not bad!). We figured it wouldn't be too uncomfortable anyway, as up until this point our only experience of Chinese trains was the swish high-speed one from Beijing to Qingdao. "How bad can it be?" we thought, but by the end we definitely weren't seeing the value in the money we saved! The seats are arranged so you are always facing someone else, and with little legroom between you. Also, despite having us having sequential seat numbers on our tickets, the way it worked out was that actually we were sitting at either side of the wagon, not even across each other. The seats are padded unlike the name hard seats suggest, but they are benches so it makes it quite difficult to sleep on. The Chinese seem pretty cool with it and are perfectly happy to sleep on stranger's shoulders!
After a long night and little sleep we were very happy to arrive in Shanghai. Within minutes of arriving we managed to meet a couple of 'characters', a girl who was overly helpful at the ticket machine (after the long night in hard seats we had learnt our lesson and were booking early to get a sleeper), and dismayed when we didn't buy tickets, not because we didn't understand the machine but because it wouldn't give us 2 tickets in the same cabin. While in the queue for the ticket desk a random white guy asked us if he smelt... Things got even weirder as we left the station to witness a motorist trying to take on a few traffic policemen with a stick. Convinced Shanghai was some kind of magnet for madheads, we took the subway to nearby the hostel. We got lost finding the hostel again and wandered around randomly until we decided to get a taxi, but this time we were prepared with a leaflet for the hostel with the address in Chinese.
The first night we checked out a local restaurant, which served Uighur food, from the Muslim north-west of China. The hostel manager seemed reluctant to send us to a 'proper' Chinese restaurant as she claimed Westerners didn't always appreciate the tastes and textures of Chinese cuisine! But the recommendation turned out to be good one, piles of spiced lamb, flat breads and black beer later we were satisfied and ready to do some proper exploring in Shanghai (as we had slept most of the afternoon away, another reason hard seats overnight aren't the greatest option). We headed straight for the Bund for a night-time stroll along. Lots of historic buildings from the French colonial days on one side and all the modern commercial buildings on the other. Quite an impressive spectacle!
The next day we headed out to explore Shanghai in daylight, on a lovely warm spring day. In the street we met some more local 'characters' who struck up a friendly conversation about where we were from and what we were up to in China, intrigued that we were wearing shorts and t-shirts (it was about 20 degrees so a very nice day back home but not really in Shanghai when it hits 35 regularly in the summer) and commenting that I looked like an artist with my hair and beard. Eventually they got round to inviting us to a 'tea festival' which had all the hallmarks of a scam (a common one in China, people approach you in the street, offer to take you to a tea ceremony, all very nice by all accounts until the bill comes for £200) so we politely declined and hot-footed it to the Yuyuan gardens and bazaar, one of the few historical tourist sites left in Shanghai. The "bazaar" is actually mainly souvenir shops and American franchises (Starbucks, Dairy Queen etc), but we had some apparently world famous 'steamed buns' were basically dumplings. They tasted nice and, well, dumplingy. There's only so much you can say about dumplings filled with mincemeat! Maybe were a little dumplinged out after seemingly every country we had visited for much of the trip had a national dish of dumplings, each with their own name for it: perogi (Poland), pelmini (Latvia), manty (Russia), buuz (Mongolia). The gardens themselves were actually very beautiful and peaceful (save for being invaded by middle aged German lemmings, sorry, tourists) and were every bit as ornate and well ordered as you would imagine an ancient Chinese garden to be. We felt this was the kind of thing the emporers were sorely lacking in their desolate Forbidden City in Beijing. In the evening we ate at a decent veggie restaurant and had some interesting tea before heading out to a bar near the hostel. It was a self-styled Belgian beer bar but we ended up drinking the imported American beers as they were cheaper, but it was great to have some 'proper' beer again. And by American I mean Brooklyn not Budweiser! On our walk home a makeshift barbequeue stand had been popped up, complete with covered seating area. Figured we could use some food to soak up the beer and had some amazing skewers. We picked out fish, beef kidney and assorted vegetables and waited with another beer for them to be cooked, grabbed some noodles from a neighbouring stand and tucked into the spicy BBQ goodness. The fish was so good we ended up ordering more. Seriously the best food of the trip so far probably! When we payed the bill it was so cheap too, ironic that our favourite meal so far was also the cheapest.
Slightly hungover we decided to check out the sights of Pudong (the commercial district), the only sight really being the district itself viewed from above in one of the high-rise towers. First we ended up in an eerily quiet shopping mall attached to the metro station, full of posh brand shops such as Armani and Versace. By this point we very hungry and figured there would be a food court and grabbed some Japanese noodles and a coke to sort us out. There was also a supermarket presumably aimed at the rich western businessmen (or more likely their wives) where we could have had ourselves some Marmite for £8! Headed for the Jin Mao tower, which was the tallest building in Shanghai until the World Financial Centre was built right next to it, a few floors higher. I bet they were a little miffed! Annoyingly between walking into the building, queuing up for tickets and taking the lift up it had hazed over so the view wasn't as good as it could have been but still pretty spectacular. Charlotte relished posting the postcards from the highest post office in the world (it sometimes feels like our travels are one long ramble trying to find the nearest post office!). Decided it would be rude not to take the world fastest train while we were in the area, despite it being to and from the airport. We took the metro there to save on the fare which we immediately regretted, given that it took over an hour. Coming back on the Maglev was pretty amazing, 431km/h an hour was the fastest speed we travelled at, almost as fast as flying. It felt like we were in a low flying aircraft as we swooped around on the elevated track, and made the trip that had took us almost an hour on the metro in 7 minutes.
Next we visited what turned out to be a real highlight in the Wright World of Beer trip. I had been hankering after some good beer since it had a been a while since we had had any variety or interesting flavours for a long while. Eastern Europe certainly has some good beers, but mainly of the same style (strong lager), and Russia was to be honest fairly uninspiring, even when we tried some beers brewed by micro-brewers. Mongolia had been the same story and it would seem the only beer normally available in China is weak lager (which actually I grew to like a lot and I think Tsingtao is the best beer of this type I have tasted - does the job when you want a cold, refreshing, cheap and thirst-quenching beer and the low ABV means you don't regret it in the morning). So some internet research revealed a few interesting beer bars in Shanghai (including the one we had patronised the previous night), mainly on account of the American influence it would seem. We found the Boxing Cat, near the laid back Fuxing Park, rammed full of young American schmoozing at a networking event. The lady kindly assumed maybe we had turned up for the event (despite Liam wearing shorts with baseball shoes and being fairly unkempt in the hair and beard department), but we politely declined and took our seats in the swish eating area upstairs. We very much enjoyed their 4 draft offerings; TKA IPA (very hoppy and dry beer in the traditional strong English India Pale Ale style, reminded me a lot of Brewdog Punk IPA), Right Hook Helles (decent German-style lager), Standing 8 Pilsner (dry, flowery Czech style lager) and Sucker Punch Pale Ale (wonderfully fruity and reminded us of Thornbridge Kipling). Along with the beer we had some tasty American grub, Charlotte opted for a Mexian soup and I went for an amazing burger; succulent beef topped with cheese and avocado - after so long eating different cuisines it was heaven to have a 'proper' burger, and it was worlds apart from the usual American fast food chain offerings. After a heady mix of beer and awesome food we were feeling good (and probably a little drunk) and headed back to the hostel feeling full and satisfied.
Our last day in Shanghai we spent visiting the Propaganda Museum, a collection of Chinese political poster art from the 20th century, housed in the basement of an apartment building. We are both fans of the style and it was an interesting historical snapshot of Chinese history too. For lunch we had some tasty noodles with stewed beef before heading for a quick pint at the Boxing Cat (Liam wanted to visit Fuxing Park which is nearby, so it would be rude not to have popped in, very convenient!). Liam also bought a baseball shirt, as he had his eye on it as all the staff were wearing them (although they were wearing them in American sizes and so were far to big for the small Chinese staff). Pint quaffed, and we were off to the train station to take a sleeper train to our next destination, Guilin.