It took 24 hours door to door from our flat in Brighton to the Astor House hotel in Shanghai, via Dubai and two Emirates flights. I read half of HG Wells’s Time Machine and watched X-men and Transcendence. We arrived at almost 2am, and Shanghai’s nighttime cityscape had already turned its lights off.
Our hectic China itinerary, booked through Rickshaw travel, gave us just one full day in the city, a day we expected to spend pretty jet-lagged. Despite not sleeping well (the mattresses were on the firm side), we were up for breakfast by 9am and felt pretty good about making the most of our day.
The Astor House hotel serves a delicious breakfast spread from the decadent and historic Peacock ballroom, once a famed and landmark place. The hotel itself is over 100 years old, it was the first western style hotel in the city and comes with an enormous amount of dark wood panelling. Our sixth floor room had a kingsize bed, a couple of sofas and two small windows which looked out over The Bund. A perfect location for a spot of night time photography.
Leaving the hotel, we crossed Waibaidu bridge and stepped out onto the northernmost tip of Shanghai’s famous promenade. Here a stark concrete obelisk demarks the history of The Bund, though it’s all in Chinese and indecipherable to us.
The waterfront, lined with mid 19th century architecture, looks out across the Huangpu river at the modern and spectacular financial district — Lujiazui, where skyscrapers fill the sky; the World financial center that looks like a bottle opener, the peculiar Oriental Pearl tower best described as a bulbous retro rocket, and the soon to be tallest building in Asia, the under construction Shanghai tower. At night it all lights up in a spectacular show, and we returned at 6pm when the sun was setting.
On our side of the river were the arguably more elegant HSBC building, Custom house with its Big Ben clock tower and the Fairmont Peace hotel.
In the midday heat we followed the promenade around to the old observatory where we headed ‘in land’, down cable-heavy Guangdong road towards People’s park and People’s square. In the centre of the park we found refreshments, half a litre of milky jasmine tea for me, and half a litre of white peach juice for Sam.
We weren’t in the mood for looking around a museum, but as we were here we should at least poke our noses in. And then of course have a quick look at one exhibition, and then another, and another, until two hours later we’d seen the lot.
Given our mood and tiredness, it’s testament to the quality and interestingness of the museum that we explored all of it. From 18th century BC bronze-wear, to Genghis Khan coins, a history of calligraphy, classic porcelain china, Qin dynasty furniture and exquisite Chinese paintings of mystical mountains and pagodas, this museum was spectacular.
After a nap in our hotel room we returned to the bund with tripods and wide angle lenses for a spot of night photography.
Amongst the crowds, we squeezed into a space by the railings overlooking the river and setup the tripod. ISO 100, F18, manual focus and remote trigger, together Sam and I waited for the sun to set and the lights to turn on.
Sadly the sky and clouds were unremarkable, a thick hazy mist blocked out whatever golden sunset there might have been, and hid the twilight blue skies. The lights turned on, one by one, but the perfect blue-hour moment came and went before most lights had come on. Eventually, like clockwork, at 7pm everything lit up simultaneously.
After dinner we walked back to our hotel along the promenade. By now, 10pm, the mists had cleared and tufty grey clouds gave the sky some substance whilst the full moon shone through. At last! With tripod setup again, we hung around for another half an hour taking more photos.
For dinner we visited Lost Heaven, just off the bund. They specialise in Chinese Yunnan cuisine. While we waited for a table Sam and I laid back and relaxed in the serene rooftop bar with a couple of cocktails; one spicy Thai Zeed (like a Vodka chilli caipirinha) and one coriander and watermelon margarita.
The decor was dark panelled and luscious red, and inside it was dimly lit but awesome (‘just like me’).
For dinner we shared a Burmese beef curry, like a spicy stew; a plate of snow peas and stir fried lily bulbs — onion like in texture but sweeter and more watery; Dai spiced pork served in banana leaf; and crispy crab cakes with a mango sauce. All washed down with a pot of Pu-erh Yunnan tea. All dishes were scrumptious.
After our night time photos we walked back to the hotel over Waibaidu bridge, and Sam was talking to me about the shape of the skyscrapers. Tired and only sort of half listening, I noticed what looked like someone carrying Sam’s phone. An iPhone in a bulky black case, yes it must be hers — she’s pick pocketing Sam’s bag! As quickly as I realised I swept around in front of her, blocked her path and stared menacingly into her eyes. I held out my hand, and gestured for the small woman to give back the device. She did, and it was all over as quickly as it had begun. A very narrow escape, adrenaline rushing we checked our bags and pockets for other valuables — nothing else was missing.
Not the best end to our time in Shanghai. 5 minutes later we were in our hotel room, both furious and relieved. It took a while to get to sleep after that.
Breakfast at 8am, and checked out shortly after, we took a 45min taxi to the gargantuan Hongqiao train station where we boarded the 11am G16 train to Beijing.
I’m now speeding across East China at 305km/h, top speed 350. Another couple of hours until we arrive in Beijing.