Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shanghai City Tour

On our final day in Shanghai we took a city tour. Arranging this was equivalent to a Laurel and Hardy comedy routine. I asked the English-speaking desk clerk at the hotel if it would be possible to arrange a tour. He pulled out a brochure printed in Chinese characters and proceeded to point and tell me what could be arranged. As if I could read any of it! The gist was that we could arrange for a private guide for a half day city tour for 220 RMB per person. Okay; let's book it for Wednesday afternoon. We could check out of the hotel at noon; eat lunch nearby; take our luggage in the car on the tour at 1300; and the tour guide could drop us off near the railway station downtown.

He called the tour company and chattered away for awhile. Then he hung up the phone and asked me to move into a private room to discuss the tour. Seemed that since Expo would be opening in 4 days that there were no guides available for half-day tours starting in the afternoon, but guides were available for half-day tours in the morning or for all-day tours. The logic of that made no sense, but who could argue. So I said to book the all-day tour. Another phone call. Another conference with me. The deal had changed. Now it would cost 220 RMB per person plus 300 RMB for the English-speaking guide. Okay, more than I wanted to spend; but go ahead and book it. Another phone call. Now the arrangements are finalized. Total cost will be 100 RMB per person plus 300 RMB for the English-speaking guide, and we would share a van with other Chinese speaking tourists. What happened to the cost of 220 RMB each? Since it was less rather than more, I decided to ignore the price difference.

A bus driver collected us at our hotel right on schedule at 0700, and we loaded up our luggage. We did not want to have to come all the way back out to the hotel area when the tour would end in the downtown area and the train station was in that general vicinity. We drove into the central district and parked. Sat there for almost an hour until the guides arrived….one for the Chinese tourists and one for Bill and me. Our guide was a 37-year-old woman. Soon the bus had collected a dozen Chinese tourists from their hotels. The first stop was The Bund, where we exited the bus and went into a tunnel to cross beneath the river to the Pudong area. The Bund is an area of Shanghai that has large old colonial buildings along the river. Most of these were built by the British dating back to the mid-1850s. These are lovely old large substantial buildings. The most well-known is The Customs House. I was surprised that the British had built such substantial buildings here so long ago. The tunnel to Pudong was designed by a Frenchman. It had several decorative lighting schemes as the passenger car took us through the tunnel. Very unusual! Unfortunately our camera batteries died during this tunnel ride, so I was able to get only 2 photos and missed the most impressive parts of this light show. This tunnel is for tourists only; local residents cannot use it. It feels like a Disney ride and really is not designed for daily commuter use.

Pudong was farmland and swampland across the river from central Shanghai. Around 1994 it was decided by the government that Shanghai should expand into the Pudong area and development was started. In 20 years there were dozens and dozens of skyscrapers built. And skyscrapers are still being built in Pudong. The scope of this development and construction is almost unfathomable. There is no way this much development could have occurred in 20 years anywhere in the US.

We rode up to the first observation level of the TV Tower. The tour guide said this was the third highest TV tower in the world today, but I'm not so certain that is correct. But it should be in the top five. The views from the mid-level observation deck were something. This 360-degree view showed just how very large Shanghai really is. There was a lot of haze (probably normal for a city this size) and it was not possible to see to the end of the tall buildings in any direction. Just buildings and buildings and buildings as far as the eye could see in every direction. What a city!! And the architecture of the tall buildings was innovative and striking. Hard to say which building was my favorite. One building had held the honor of being the tallest building in the world until the recent completion of an even taller building in Dubai.

One building was very different. It had columns on every story, all the way around the building. Columns on top of columns on top of columns. How unusual. Bet the Greeks never thought their columns would be utilized like this, although I think these columns served more visual purpose than construction design load-bearing reasons. My photos don't do the views justice because it was such a gray day. Within an hour of taking the photos it began to rain.
Descending the TV Tower, we entered the museum located inside the base. This museum is very, very large. Displays depict what life was like in China progressing through the past 1000 years, with emphasis on the past 3 centuries. One life-size depiction showed a woman working in her home and her baby placed in a barrel-type structure to keep the kid out of her way. Like the first style baby seat. Nothing like what these have evolved into today because there was nothing to keep the kid occupied. There were also displays showing the opulence of the imperial periods.

So the first 2 places seen on this tour had been on our list of tourist attractions we had wanted to see. Most of the rest of the tour was of no interest whatsoever to us. Next was a visit to a knife factory owned by a 400-year-old German company, where we watched a demonstration and saw how the knives were manufactured and listened to a sales pitch. Like we wanted to buy knives to carry in luggage on trains and planes. Oh, I forgot to mention earlier. Because of Expo, every time one enters the subway you must submit your carry-on items to x-ray scanner and pass through a metal detector. Also had to do this at the TV Tower in Pudong and several other places around the city. Security is being taken very seriously for this world gathering.

After the knife factory we visited a chocolate factory downstairs. Then ate a very bad lunch nearby. Then on to a crystal and diamond showroom. This 'tour' was basically just taking captured tourists shopping. And we weren't buying anything.

After all the shopping the bus took us over a bridge that is supposed to be a big tourist attraction. Big whoop. It was just a bridge. But it did afford us a good view of a large number of the Expo buildings. Never did figure out which building was the United States exhibition.

Next stop was the Yu Yuan Gardens. These 400-year-old gardens were built during the Ming dynasty. The emperor wanted to build a beautiful, peaceful place for his parents to live during their declining years. Today, all the buildings are copies because the originals eventually deteriorated beyond repair. The old buildings were repaired many times, but today they are just copies of the original structures. That does not detract from the beauty of the gardens. Outside the gardens are shopping complexes galore, all are built in the same architectural style of the Ming period.

There is a very famous tea house between the shopping complex and the actual garden walls. Supposedly Henry Kissinger had tea here when he visited. And Richard Nixon. And a British woman who was queen, but not the real queen --- according to our guide. I questioned her trying to find out if this woman was maybe a princess or was really Queen Elizabeth or if she was maybe Margaret Thatcher. But I never found out who this 'famous' woman supposedly was. Photo at left is the tea house and Haibo, the new blue mascot for the city of Shanghai. The photo at right is the same tea house from a different angle.

The whole area is a very beautiful and very crowded and overpriced tourist trap, situated outside the famous garden walls. Oh goody…...more shopping for those of us who aren't interested one bit in shopping for anything.

Finally, the bus stopped on the Nanjing East Road and the guide told us that was the end of the tour. She said we could walk through the Nanjing Walking Street (at least this was on our list of things to see), and that we could either get a taxi on the opposite end of the walking street or we could take the subway. It would have been really easy to take the subway to the Shanghai Railway Station, but we were afraid our luggage would cause too much trouble….dealing with metal detectors and all the extra security. It was rush hour and we had already seen how crowded the subway cars were during non-rush hours. Instead, we opted for a taxi.

For what it is worth, I would not recommend taking a city tour in Shanghai unless you like to shop. We did see The Bund (twice), the TV Tower in Pudong, the Yu Yuan Gardens and Nanjing Walking Street. And those 4 places were on our sightseeing list as places of interest. But the knife factory, chocolate factory, crystal showroom and diamond jewelry showroom were a total waste of time. And the only items of the lunch that were edible were the Chinese cabbage and plain white rice. We could have done the tour much better on our own.

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