Photography by Yuri Krasov
Shanghai. Exciting, exhilarating, accelerating – everything I love about a big city! From the 10th floor of our hotel I observe a busy intersection underneath; eight rows of car traffic, crowds of pedestrians, hundreds of motorbikes and bicycles zigzagging among them. The air is murky, the sky is ink wash, and the sun is dim peeking through a forest of futuristic Pudong towers. Some thirty years ago it was farmlands, now – Manhattan.
The day is mine. Dear husband is here for work, so he leaves at seven in the morning, and returns when it’s dark outside. I’m here to explore and revel in my favorite environment. I’m a big city girl. My strong belief is that happiness is in big cities, and the farther from them you are the less happy you are. That’s my story and I stick to it – take it or leave it.
Trying to find my way to the slew of tourist attractions I study the map of Shanghai Metro – the world’s largest, with more than 360 miles on dozens of lines – surprisingly well marked and easy to navigate. Too bad that above the ground, in most tourist areas the signs in English are still rare, and the majority of passersby during business hours are of non-English-speaking demographic.
More than once upon exiting a Metro station and looking for a nearby attraction I have to cross a square the size of a football field or walk a mile to the nearest intersection only to figure out that I took a wrong turn…
While it’s easy to spot the golden roof of Jing’an Temple or the spaceship silhouette of Oriental Pearl Tower, some sites are hidden, like the ancient Yuyuan Garden within a bustling marketplace.
My most shameful site-seeing episode is happening by the China Art Museum. The bright-red inverted pyramid construction, seemingly easy to identify, is nowhere to be seen, even though the guidebook lists it steps from the Metro exit. I walk one way – an endless fence beside me, I walk another way – nothing in plain view that resembles a guidebook picture. Nothing red anywhere around. Finally, I look up, and there, high above in the clouds I see the lowest red beam of the enormous towering museum roof. Apparently, I’m just crawling along the curb like an ant, and need to go only half a mile more to get to the entrance and the gigantic steps leading to the oversized galleries filled with striking contemporary art.
Tired of self-imposed challenges I turn to those in the know, and sign up for a Public French Concession Tour with Newman Tours (www.newmantours.com).
On a two-hour walking adventure, the native English speaking guide, Daniel, meets our group by the South Shaanxi Metro Station on the corner of South Maoming Road and Central Huaihai Road, and takes us through the sycamore-lined streets of the former French Concession that existed here from 1849 through 1943 alongside the British Concession as the result of the Opium Wars.
We hear the most fascinating stories about the 1930s Shanghai – then perceived as an exotic capital of sex, drugs, and glamorous movie stardom, and get a better understanding of Shanghai’s colonial legacy by learning how the Opium Wars and Taiping Rebellion determined the course of the city’s history. Highly knowledgeable and with a great sense of humor, our guide takes us to posh hotels still adorned with Art Deco elements – formerly of Victor Sassoon real estate empire; to a 1920’s hospital where tuberculosis patients were exposed to radical deathly remedies (with the best of doctors’ intentions), and to a gorgeous French Renaissance with Art Deco influences building of Garden Hotel, formerly a French Sports Club, Cercle Sportif Francais (1924-26) later favored by the Chairman Mao and therefore spared during the devastating years of the Cultural Revolution.
In a spacious park, one of many in the French Concession, we pass large groups of retirees engaged in tai-chi exercises, chess and mahjong, and other recreational activities. A Zen-inclined older gentleman is meticulously painting calligraphic hieroglyphs with a brush dipped in water. They appear on the asphalt for a brief moment, and dry out as soon as the gathering crowd of spectators manages to read them.
There’s so much more to see and hear on this tour, but after two hours of walking and listening I don’t feel tired – such is the power of sheer touristy fulfillment!
Inspired by the successful experience, and by the ease of touring Shanghai in the wake of an expert guide I sign up for Hands-on Dumpling Delights Tour with UnTour Shanghai Food Tours (www.untourfoodtours.com).
Here I must say that dumpling in any shape or form is my favorite food item. I hold a strong belief that since dough stuffed with meat exists in practically every culture and goes back down centuries and probably millennia, it can’t be bad for you. My love for dumplings has no limits, even though it rarely extends to making them myself. Making dumplings is a rather tedious chore… or so I think until I meet our tour guide and a supreme dumpling expert, Kyle Long.
Before our tour even starts, he notifies all the group participants to arrive on time, because hot, juicy, freshly-made morning dumplings wait for no one.
We start our tour visiting a number of delightful hole-in-the-wall tiny establishments where different kinds of dumplings are being made in front of our eyes, and distributed to the eager city dwellers hurrying for work, but still forming fast-moving lines outside. Our guide explains the Chinese symbols for “meat,” “big” and “bun,” and notes that for a Chinese eater food is nothing if it’s not fresh. Bursting with freshness!
What a feast of dumpling delights we’re having! Plump round, or chewy crescent, lightly fried at the bottom or all steamed, bathed in soy sauce and topped with chili and ginger shavings, these dumplings are the best in the world – in the dumpling capital of the world, Shanghai!
We visit Street Hawker Potstickers on Gao’an Lu, Nanjing Soup Dumplings on Jianguo Xi Lu, and Lanzhou Lamian on Gao’an Lu near Hangshan Lu, and head to Chinese Cooking Workshop on Dongping Lu to engage in some serious hands-on dumpling making.
Under strict guidance of a master chef at the Chinese Cooking Workshop I surprise myself with my own craftsmanship. I manage to mix the dough to the right consistency, roll it properly with a tiny bamboo roller, stuff it with meat, pork fat and onion mixture, and purse it together in a neat little dumpling. I make five of those, feeling happy at my culinary achievement. We all then briefly fry our dumplings on one side, and steam under a lid. They turn out wonderful! It’s a pity I can eat only one after our morning feast. However, now I know that I can make my favorite food myself any time!