Shanghai / Beijing, China – Trip Report

It is hard to pick up a magazine or watch a news report on global affairs without there being some mention of China.  In the past 10 years, the influence and economic power of this nation has exploded on the scene as China has sought more and more visibility and influence in world affairs.  Twenty years ago, the most prevalent image in most people’s mind when thinking of China were the Tiananmen Square protests and brutal government crackdown on dissidents.  Today, it is more likely that one thinks of the Beijing Olympic games of 2008 or the rush of companies, large and small, to enter this huge consumer market.

In the past six months, I’ve had two trips to both Shanghai and Beijing and will combine my experiences from both in this trip report.  These are two of the most popular destinations in mainland China and they offer quite a bit of contrast.  Beijing is the political center of the country and also has quite a bit of historical interest with attractions such as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall.  Think of it in terms of the Washington D.C. and Philadelphia of China.  On the other hand, Shanghai is the New York City of China.  It is the brash, bold, and fast-moving business center for the country with its exploding skyline and huge aspirations.

I will leave it to guide books and web sites that specialize in tourism to give you details of the individual sites in these cities.  Instead, I will focus on overall impressions.

Beijing

This city of 20 million people has been in existence under various names for about 3,000 years starting as the ancient city of Ji.  Beijing has been the seat of political power since the early 1400’s.  The Chinese government apparatus and most of the largest Chinese companies are based here.  From a tourism standpoint, Beijing is home to such sites as:

  • The Forbidden City
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Summer Palace
  • Temple of Heaven
  • The Great Wall of China

The Forbidden City is an interesting place and the scale of it is quite massive.  When one thinks of the impression this place must have made on the populace of its day, it must have been as awe-inspiring as was intended, much like places like the Palace at Versailles.  While there are certainly some decorative aspects, I don’t find the temples and pagodas to be as aesthically pleasing as temples in some other places like Kyoto and parts of Japan.  The buildings in the Forbidden City have more weightiness to them and are more blunt and forceful.

 

The Great Wall is not in Beijing per se, but there are several sections of the wall in close proximity to the city.  The nearest and most popular is the Badaling section of the wall.  This is an area that is well-served by transport options but also has a bit of a tourist trap type feel.  On the positive side, this is an area where you can see multiple sections of the wall on neighboring mountains giving the real sense of the wall going on and on without knowing where it stops or starts.

The Summer Palace, another popular tourist site, is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its representation of classical Chinese landscape garden design.  It is more notable as a peaceful park than for particular historical significance although there has been activity here since the mid 1100’s.

Perhaps my favorite experience in Beijing are the food markets, especially the one located right off of Wangfujing street.  Where in the U.S. can you buy fried scorpions on a stick?

Shanghai

Pudong Skyline

The largest city in China – 23 million people – and the economic and financial center of mainland China.  Shanghai has been growing rapidly in the past 15 years or so and their skyline has sprung from nowhere to the iconic image that is the Pudong district when viewed from the Bund.  One of the things to do in this new business district is visit the highest observation deck in the world within the World Trade Center, sometimes referred to as the “Bottle Opener” given its distinctive shape.

While I’m not someone who has any history of vertigo or fear of heights, this observation deck will get to you since its floor is made up of clear tiles giving you an eerie sense of the height and a complete lack of confidence in where you step!

Other tourism spots in Shanghai include:

  • Yuyuan Gardens
  • Xintiandi
  • Shanghai Musuem
  • The Bund
  • Nanjing Road

One of my favorite areas is Tianfizang (also referred to as Tai Kang Lu) which is an old Shikumen neighborhood that has been converted to fashionable shops, restaurants, and bars.  Sometimes compared to Xintiandi, I find it to be a bit more authentic and a little less polished.  Shopping on Nanjing Rd. or around Yuyuan Gardens is not a relaxing experience as you have a tout trying to sell you a fake Rolex or iPad every ten yards.   But in Tai Kang Lu, you can spend some nice time browsing shops and still have the opportunity to negotiate a good price.  

Air Pollution

Air quality in Beijing

No review of these cities is complete without some comments about the air pollution.  I have written about this in a previous post but it is worth reiterating.  Air pollution in China is dangerous.  Anyone with respiratory issues needs to seriously consider the need to travel to certain areas and cities.  Beijing tends to be worse than Shanghai and the airport has actually had to shut down flights due to lack of visibility from the smog.

The air is absolutely post-apocalyptic.  You can see it.  You can smell it.  You can taste it.  If you look at some of the pictures I’ve posted, you can see what I mean.  Shanghai, possibly due to its location on the water, seems to have better days than Beijing but I know several people who have stayed at the Park Hyatt in the World Trade Center and never saw a view from the windows due to the smog.

Final Thoughts

I have mixed feelings about my time in China.  On the positive side, you get to experience a culture that has been in existence for thousands of years and that is once again emerging into a leading world power.  The people here have always been friendly and have gone out of their way to help me when I have needed it.  The service culture in restaurants, hotels, and other businesses is top-notch.  It is still a relatively inexpensive place to visit for Americans.

However, the pollution, the censorship and heavy police presence of the Chinese Communist Party, and the rapid expansion of cities also weighs heavy on the enjoyment of this place.

 Of course, there are also many other places in China that warrant a visit and to put everything at the footstep of two major cities would also be unbalanced.  Have you been to China?  If so, what were your experiences and reactions?  Please feel free to share.

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