This is a little tale of China — an incredibly diverse country that is cut off from the rest of the world, with delicious (and strange) food, generous but introverted people and a fascinating old culture. Yes, I had some stereotypes before travelling to China — I thought of crispy duck, crowded streets, grey buildings, cheap (and fake) clothes, and creepy old men.
And as I was going to find out, some of those stereotypes were not so wrong…
Exploring the Biggest City in China — Shanghai
Shanghai is with over 26.32 million inhabitants the biggest city in China — and rivals with the metropolis of New York and Paris in its modernity and cultural diversity. When I first laid eyes on this city after landing, I was looking out of a taxi that had little screens on the back seats playing funky commercials showing happy Chinese families, advertising the Chinese new year of the sheep. The buildings really were grey and so high, I almost had to lean out of the window. It seemed like there were way too many people and not enough space, so they had to build buildings that touch the sky. Once in a while, you could see a beautifully decorated temple in the midst of it all, adding a cultural touch to the city. The city reminded me a lot of Tokyo, even though the two cultures are seemingly similar, they are actually very different.
Exploring Shanghai, I did not use any map, I just went where it felt right, a totally new way of exploring. And next to the busy shopping malls, I found incredibly cool places, like a hidden garden in the middle of the business district, where old men were playing mahjong and young couples were enjoying the silence of the lake. The city surprised me with its vastness, but it was most beautiful at night when thousands of lights illuminated the grey buildings and enormous streets.
One thing is for sure, if you want to go shopping and have a lot of money, Shanghai is the place to go. I never saw so many shopping malls which were exclusively for people with a heavy purse. Of course, I should mention that in China, your appearance sets your status, and your status is everything. So even if my friends did not earn a lot, they would buy a 1000 dollar Prada bag because then they are considered as part of society. Of course, you also have the whole fake-clothes-scene, but believe me when I say there is way more expensive stuff in the shops — I guess because they ship all the fake stuff to Europe. But one tip I can give you, if you ever in China and want to shop, you don’t even have to go outside. TaoBao is THE shopping paradise for people like me (and I mean budget travellers and students). You can browse millions of little shops that sell everything for nothing. I swear I spent hours looking through that. And I promise you will too…
Must-See Places I can 100 % recommend
- Jade Buddha Temple
- the Bund (for the skyline)
- YuYuan Gardens (Chinese Camden Town)
- QiBao (an old town close to Shanghai)
- LingYin Temple
- Hangzhou (half an hour from Shanghai, go to the night market and watch the colourful fountains)
Chinese Food — Not What You Expect
My first meal in China I had in a famous hotpot restaurant, and I have to admit I was both impressed and scared afterwards. The service was beyond my imagination, they brought you hot towels and put your phone in a plastic bag so it would get dirty. And the food was extraordinary. At one point I stopped asking “And what is this?” because 80% of the food I didn’t know anyway. And I did not care because it was a feast for my tasting buds. Of course, I skipped the freshly cooked brain. After a few weeks, I did get accustomed with the weird stuff Chinese people eat, and I even tried the famous chicken feet, as well as fried duck blood, beef that looks like a bonbon, and delicious stuff like water chestnut, fresh sugar cane, and pickled lotus root, DELICIOUS!
For breakfast, I almost always went to the family mart, a chain of little supermarkets where you could literally get everything. My favourite was BaoZi , custard-filled dumplings. You could also get all kinds of stuff on a stick (like egg, chicken, sausage, some vegetables) and of course rice and noodles in all variations. I loved how supermarkets in China also were small fast food shops. The only annoying bit was the same melody that played overtime someone entered or left the shop, you can imagine.
As a coffee lover, I had to check out the best coffee shops in Shanghai. As it turned out, Chinese people do not speak very good English, they couldn’t even understand “I would like a coffee” in a coffee shop. They are more tea people anyway. They love their bubble tea, which is far away from the stuff we get in Germany, it is in fact, really really addictive. I swear I had minimum one per day. The bubbles made of beans have such amazing consistency, combined with hot sweet milk tea, only leaves you wanting more. And because I got understood much better, I turned from a coffee lover to a bubble tea addict. For now.
Must-Tries for Food-Adventurers
- Hotpot at Hai Di Lao
- BaoZi at Family Mart
- Bubble Tea at Heytea
- Peking Duck at Xindalu
A Culture Full of Surprises — The Guest is King
Chinese culture surprised me. I knew they were devoted to their jobs, and family came first, but I did not expect that much generosity. There was not one single time where I had to pay for my food when I went out with my friends. Whenever they would meet for dinner, someone else would pay the bill for everyone. And they would order a hell of a lot of different stuff — all to share. I loved that! You really feel like you are eating together, not just next to each other. Not just my friends were incredibly generous, also strangers I just met — they paid the entrance to a temple or my stay at a hostel, just because they want you to have the best impression possible of their country. They live according to the motto: You are the guest, so you shall be king.
Of course, there are not only positive experiences. What I really didn’t like was, for example, the spitting on the streets. I really did not understand that at all. It is also incredibly loud on the streets because of people honking all the time, for no apparent reason. And if you think they will apologize when they run into you, forget it. I had the impression that they did not learn the word “sorry” yet. Furthermore, you should get used to being stared at, if you do not look Chinese. Honestly, I do not mind people asking to take a picture with me (which will happen even more if you are blonde), but it is a bit creepy if people start secretly taking pictures and videos of you on the subway. My advice — just take it as a compliment.
Positives and Negatives of Chinese Culture
+ They are incredibly generous.
+ They love to share.
+ They admire their country very much.
— They love spitting in the streets.
— They don’t say sorry, ever.
— They will stare at you (& take photos of you).
To summarize, China is definitely worth a visit. If you make friends, they will treat you like a royal. You can explore beautiful temples, stunning nature and the busiest streets you’ll ever see. So prepare yourself to take some very memorable photos of strange and beautiful things. The food was definitely one of my highlights — because to be honest: Chinese people just know what they are doing with food. But be prepared to always look good because be sure that loads of people will want to take pictures of or with you!
If you want to know more about the best places to visit in Shanghai, I recommend you to get a Lonely Planet Travel Guide for Shanghai (I always use them for my trips.)
Thank you for appreciating my art!