Discovering Beijing & Shanghai with Susie Gordon

1. Beijing and Shanghai are vastly different. How would you describe each city?

As the capital of China, Beijing is a tapestry that reflects the nation’s history, culture, and politics. It’s calmer and more confident than Shanghai. With its low sprawl of ring roads and straight avenues, its layout is comfortingly uniform. Dotted all around the city are cultural relics and ancient sites—it’s a historian’s dream. Beijing has its modern side too, with a burgeoning nightlife scene and plenty of culture.

Shanghai is the rebellious younger sibling, with a relentless drive for progress that typifies China’s forward motion on the world stage. New restaurants and bars are constantly opening. The large expat population gives the downtown districts an international feel, and the shopping malls, designer boutiques, and coffee chains testify to the city’s ever-increasing Westernization.

2. When is the best time to plan a trip?

Spring and fall are the best times of year to visit Beijing and Shanghai. Summer in both cities can be stiflingly hot; in the winter, the temperature can drop below zero, and there are biting winds. Spring (from early April until mid-June) is pleasant, with sunshine and warm evenings. The Plum Rains, however, hit Shanghai in late May, which is something to bear in mind. The summer starts to cool down in September, and the weather stays relatively warm until the end of October. Public holidays like Chinese New Year (late January or early February) and Golden Week (early October) are best avoided, as crowds gather at the tourist sights.

3. What are some key Chinese phrases you recommend learning before visiting?

It’s good to know the basic greetings, such as Ni hao (“Hello”), Ni hao ma? (“How are you?”), Zai jian (“Goodbye”), and Xie xie (“Thank you”). If you don’t understand something that is said to you, Ting bu dong is useful. Ask how much something costs with Duo shao qian? or Zenme mai?, and apologize with Bu hao yisi. To tell someone your name, say Wo jiao…and ask to ask theirs, use Ni jiao shenme?

4. Name a few of the most interesting historical sites.

Beijing is filled with history, from the sprawling Forbidden City to the idyllic Summer Palace and colorful Temple of Heaven. The White Cloud Temple is also worth a visit, as is the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) that was destroyed by French and British troops in 1860. The Great Wall is a must-see, of course—especially its the less popular and more remote parts.

Shanghai has fewer historic spots, but there are several that are worth a look. The Old City is filled with treasures, such as the popular Yu Garden and the City God Temple. Slightly less famous but equally interesting are the Chenxiangge Nunnery and the remains of the Ming Dynasty city wall. The old French Concession has hundreds of Art Deco villas and apartment blocks, and the former Jewish Quarter, north of the Bund, is replete with history.

5. Do you have any tips for shoppers?

Shopping in Chinese markets can be daunting if you’re not used to bargaining. The trick is to be confident, and always offer a third of the original price. Once you’ve reached an agreement with the vendor, never go back on it and refuse the deal. This is very bad form, and can cause great offense. While Beijing and Shanghai have lots of modern shopping malls, there are also plenty of independent boutiques and stores that are worth seeking out as well. The fake markets, although tempting, are often crowded, and the vendors there can be aggressive.

6. What’s the best way to get around in Beijing and Shanghai?

Both cities have excellent modern metro systems with cheap fares and signs in Chinese and English. The bus system is slightly more complicated, as signs and timetables tend to be written only in Chinese. Taxis in both Beijing and Shanghai are cheap compared to Western cities, and are plentiful at all times of the day and night. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English, though, so keep your guidebook handy and point to the Chinese name of your destination. Beijing is famous for its bikes, and cycling is a great way of getting around if you don’t mind the traffic. There are dedicated bicycle lanes in both cities, and riding around Shanghai’s old French Concession is a great way to spend an afternoon.

7. What are a few of Beijing’s best art museums?

Beijing’s art scene is flourishing, and there are some excellent galleries and museums. The most famous art hub is the 798 complex in the northeast part of town, which contains a huge number of galleries of all sizes and specialties. Highlights include Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) and Art Scene Beijing, which has a sister gallery in Shanghai. Slightly further afield is the Caochangdi Art District, which contains Pekin Fine Arts, Courtyard, and other galleries. Closer to the center of town, Red Gate Gallery is one of the oldest foreign-run art spaces in Beijing.

8. China is steadily growing more popular as a business destination for travelers; what are some highlights for those with limited time?

It’s possible to see most of Beijing’s important attractions in just a couple of days if you organize your time well. Start at the Temple of Heaven, then explore Qianmen and the Legation Quarter before walking through Tian’anmen Square to the Forbidden City. Next, head up through the hutongs around Houhai and check out the hip Gulou area. Finish in Sanlitun to experience the capital’s nightlife.

You can get the flavor of Shanghai in a short amount of time if you start at Pudong’s Lujiazui Financial Zone to check out the skyscrapers, cross the river and walk down the Bund to the Old City, head west to People’s Square, then finish up in the old French Concession.

9. Where can travelers find the best food in both Beijing and Shanghai, and what dish do you consider a must-have?

Shanghainese food is typically sweet, with many dishes steeped in alcohol. Popular local delicacies include the autumnal harvest of hairy crabs from Yancheng Lake, and xiao long bao soup dumplings, which are filled with pork and crab. If you’re feeling brave, seek out a “stinky tofu” stand (you’ll know it by the stench), which sells a special sort of tofu that’s been fermented in a brew of herbs, brine, and milk. Beijing’s star dish, meanwhile, has to be roasted duck, which is served in restaurants all across the city. The Wangfujing street market is the place to go for strange and interesting street snacks like octopus on a stick.

10. Where is the best place to go to get a taste for traditional Chinese life?

Although most have been razed for modern developments, Beijing’s hutong alleys still buzz with local life. Some, like Nanluoguxiang and Wudaoying, have been transformed into shopping and eating hubs, but most remain as residential lanes. The hutong networks around Houhai are particularly interesting. Local Shanghai life also thrives in many parts of the city, with narrow lanes running off from even the busiest of modern thoroughfares. In both cities, a trip to the park early in the morning offers a view of local life, as elderly people practice t’ai chi and qi gong among the ponds and trees.

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