Enter the dragon

Written by Kiran Yadav | Updated: Apr 27 2008, 06:51am hrs
Being in China at a time when it hopes to keep its date with a politics-free Olympics would definitely be worth some experience, I thought to myself as I was flying out of New Delhi. Little did I then know that my journey would end trying to trace my lost baggage at three in the morning at IGI airport and much later, miserably attempting to convince the custom officer on duty that the baggage in their custody wasindeed mine.

Glitches ignored, Shanghai was definitely worth the visit. For one, it is a place of ideological paradoxes you feel the strong hand of capitalism as you walk its streets, only to wonder whats stopping the country from moving to democracy. The debate would perhaps suit another occasion better.

For now it is the Olympic graffiti that grabs your attention as you enter the city, making you feel part of the much-awaited grand event. My guess, however, is that the excitement in Shanghai might not exactly match the grandiose scale it is at in Beijing.

Apart from the Olympic souvenirs sharing space with the Communist chic on the shop shelves, the hospitality industry in Shanghai, I found, is buzzing for the forthcoming event. Mention worthy is URBN Shanghai, a 26-room carbon neutral hotel. The hotel tracks the amount of energy each guest uses and the carbon footprint can then be compensated for by suitable investment in green energy development and emission-reduction projects in the country itself. Elsewhere, JIA is trying to tap the design-conscious traveller by developing a 1920s property on the Nanjing Road, one of the prime realty locales in Shanghai. While those options would soon be open, at the moment you can place your bets on Hyatt on the Bund. Most of its 631 rooms and suites promise a great view of Pudong across the Huangpu waterway.

The infrastructure of the city is, no doubt, impressive. The maze of flyovers and subways complement the skyscrapers well. But for someone used to a city with green lungs, Shanghai comes across as rather claustrophobic. Theres either a skyscraper in sight or a giant crane at work on its clone. Moreover, despite the infrastructure, I invariably found the traffic crawling. Thats something you dont expect after a ride on Meglav the magnetic levitation train running at 430 km/per hour covers the 30 km distance from the Pudong International airport to the city in just 8 minutes.

First impression apart, the city definitely has its charms. The Bund, a landmark in its own right, has several colonial buildings and also the famous Pearl TV Tower and the Jin Mao Tower a perfect architectural contrast. The latter, at 421m, is the third tallest in the world. Grand Hyatt occupies 53rd to 87th floor of the Tower and theres a public observation deck on the 88th level! You definitely cant miss this one. Just pray the skyline is not smoggy the day you get there.

And if history interests you, try Historical Museum. The Huangpu ferry and also the cruise are easily avoidable if you are short of time theres really not much you will miss out on. Do, however, make time for the Yu garden. Your visit to Shanghai is incomplete without this, my guide had maintained from day one. And he proved to be right. The garden, with its manicured trees and willows, attempts to give you a feel of the Ming dynasty design. Surrounding it are rows of shops a great place to pick up souvenirs like chopsticks, silk tops, pearls and also brand imitations. Several people may approach you with a piece of colourful paper displaying branded watches and bags, urging you to follow them for budget buys. I checked out at least eight such shops. Hidden from the main market, all of them looked shady, but had some unbelievably authentic looking imitations. Fendi, Gucci, Tissot, Rolex name the brand and they have it for you.

Bargaining with them is more a battle of nerves than an art. Most of them know little English, so all the communication is done through calculators. I spent close to 20 minutes settling for a Ferragamo bag. The offer opened at 500 Yuan and I finally managed to seal it at 50. Only then was the oscillating calculator put to rest! The killer bargaining definitely helps you build a good appetite. Indulge in some local snacks. Mini steamed buns and juicy pork dumplings are a must. Chinese cuisine has little to offer vegans and most preparations are rich in bean curd and egg plant. There are plenty of good restaurants as well, but you might have to wait for your turn. That shouldnt be a problem though as part of its wireless city plan, most restaurants have moved on to an automatic call mode. Just punch in your cell phone number to enter the waiting queue. A message will be sent to you as soon as your turn comes.

If departmental stores suit you better, Nanjing Road is where you can spend an evening. Address to some of the most premium luxury brands, the neons here make you feel like a celebration is on. Only that its just any other nightYou need to spend no more than 15 minutes here to aver that Ernst and Young may be right when it estimates that by 2015 China will overtake the US to become the largest consumer of luxury goods.

Fact File

Best time to visit

March to June. The climate is pleasant during this time. However, the evenings are slightly chilly. So, do carry a pullover or two.

Survival guide

Very few people can converse in English. So, it might be helpful to learn a few Chinese words.

Shop

Bargain hard its an experience in itself. At times they even settle for one-tenth of the price they initially quoted. Pick up faux leather bags, ceramics and also Olympic memorabilia now they make for the best souvenirs.

Must try

The Chinese tea is completely different from the English and must be tried at leisure.

Nightlife

The entire city dazzles at night and is a treat that cant be missed. Getting a cab back to the hotel may be a problem though.