4 December 2016
A gentlemen wearing a freshly pressed suit greets me at the arrivals hall at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport and escorts me to a BMW that’s so shiny I could use it as a mirror. As I slide into the back seat of my swish ride, my driver explains that I don’t need a password for the Wi-Fi and enquires as to what style of music I would like to hear.
China’s largest city doesn’t feel wholly Chinese. It’s an intoxicating mix of Eastern and Western customs, where stylish women wearing Jimmy Choo heels stride past pyjama-clad folk practicing tai chi, and hipsters mill about art galleries before Uber-ing to meet their parents at casual dumpling haunts.
For visitors, it’s a city where the sights are as diverse as they are fascinating. In one day you can slurp soup dumplings with chatty locals; max out your credit cards at a glitzy mall; stroll along the Bund, Shanghai’s legendary waterfront esplanade; and whiz up a skyscraper to take in views of the sprawling metropolis.
Shanghai is home to hundreds of skyscrapers, and after checking in to my hotel I head to the Oriental Pearl Tower, with its distinctive pink spheres, to gain a sense of this pulsating place. Although not the city’s highest structure (the Shanghai Tower, at 632 metres, is the tallest), the 468-metre Oriental Pearl was Shanghai’s first high-rise, completed in 1994. Thanks to an observation platform with a transparent floor located 259 metres above the ground, the Oriental Pearl still attracts the crowds.
Today, slate-coloured clouds spitting drizzle are suspended in the sky and – like the people queuing up, clumsily manoeuvring their umbrellas – I want a view that’s beneath the cloud cover.
Many travellers to Shanghai ascend a tower or two, but almost everyone heads to the Bund to admire the towers from the other side of the Huangpu River, as well as check out the smart locals. The Shanghainese have long been perceived as China’s chic citizens, and domestic tourists from all over the country flock here to watch them strut their stuff.
I join the people-watchers at dusk. There are women in power suits striding with momentum, families timing photos as boats sail past, and clusters of tourists soaking up the atmosphere.
When the sun sinks below the horizon, Shanghai turns into a frenzied light show; it’s as if each building is trying to out-neon the one beside it. Candy pinks, emerald greens, fiery oranges, electric blues ... bright colours flash and flicker, putting on quite the performance.
A performance of a different kind, Shanghai Circus World is a must-do. The astonishingly flexible artists twist and turn their sylph-like limbs into near-impossible shapes to high acclaim.
I taxi it to the show, where I sit and watch these talented performers cycle upside down in awkward positions, climb each other as if it’s an everyday occurrence (which, for them, it is), and jump, fly and leap their way around the stage. When it’s time to go, I feel deflated. How different my life would be, I think, if I could dive through hoops in skin-tight sequins.
The reality is, I’ll never wear skin-tight sequins – especially in Shanghai, where the food is divine and loose, elasticised pants are much more practical. So the following evening I join an UnTour Shanghai night-market food crawl. We watch a man kill and pan-fry a snake, sample crayfish doused in Sichuan peppercorn sauce, gorge on “face slap” dumplings (so called because they are supposedly so tasty your face will get slapped if you take someone else’s portion), and try purple sticky rice and almond tofu and fat-tailed sheep kebabs.
On my last day in Shanghai I simply wander. I walk along Nanjing Road, popping into massive malls to admire the plethora of luxury designer goods for sale, poking my head into swanky art galleries, and stopping in at sidewalk cafes for iced coffee and rainbow cake.
Among the shops and high-rises, I stumble across Jing’an Temple, a centuries-old Buddhist holy place that houses China’s largest jade Buddha. Here tourists admire the intricate edifice and monks swathed in lengthy orange robes with thick white knee-high socks pop in and out of sight.
Nearby Jing’an Park is another delight. There are people practicing tai chi and a lone harpist playing tunes, but it’s the ballroom dancing that draws me in. There’s no teacher in sight, just upbeat instrumental music statically booming from a cassette player while a cluster of locals shuffle around. A father sways his young daughter mid-air; two elderly women hobble out of beat; husbands and wives gaze into each other’s eyes.
I’m so enthralled I don’t even notice the man wearing a matching velvet shirt-and-shorts ensemble approach me. “Will you dance with me?” he asks.
I pause, pondering his offer. “Okay,” I answer. I can’t do skin-tight sequins, but I can dance. And today, in my loose patterned pants, I fit right in.
Tatyana Leonov was a guest of ILTM and Mandarin Oriental Pudong.