What to do in Shanghai

Shanghai: a name that conjures images of sky scrapers and neon lights. Full of people, offices and traffic jams, it is a throbbing financial artery of a city. And as we touch down on the tarmac it already has one thing in its favour – it’s not raining!

Fish being fed in the Yu Yuan garden

Fish being fed in the Yu Yuan garden

The sun is a welcome relief after our drenching in Xian and the bustling city holds more than enough attractions to keep us busy. The YuYuan garden is set in the centre of a bustling (though very touristy) warren of narrow streets and market stalls. Food smells float over the heads of haggling locals buying everything from personalised name stamps to sunglasses. It is a relief to find the garden contained within soft grey stone walls, unimposingly sitting within the chaos. Once through the gates however, the profusion of tour groups makes it scarcely less crowded. Choosing our root through the interconnected squares by going the opposite way to the groups, we manage to find areas that are less oppressively crowded. The garden is full of ornamental ponds filled with fish, green topped trees with gnarled bark and carved lions and dragons standing guard. There are large rockeries throughout, paying testament to the melding of stone and plant life which constitutes a traditional Chinese garden. It has the feeling of a place that could easily be peaceful, if not for the crowds that push so loudly through it. A small boy sitting on the edge of a walkway across the water is feeding the fish. He is only a few years old, and he sits on his mother’s lap, shredding chunks into the water. The bright orange fish flock around him from all areas of the pond, a seething mass of squeezing, jumping bodies, flapping over each other to get to the food.

The Shanghai museum is said to be one of the best in China. You could easily spend the day in this impressive marble building, wandering amongst the exhibits, pouring over snippets from China’s extensive history. There is a huge gallery of ancient sculptures filled with testaments to Buddha, carved animals and idealised human figures. The stone has lost its coldness in its transformation and they stand proud, filled with the care of the hand that carved them. There is an entire gallery dedicated to the attire of the numerous different ethnic minorities that populate this huge country, a collection as diverse and colourful as the people themselves with each outfit retaining its individual flare and each pattern distinct from the next. There is a peaceful gallery of traditional Chinese paintings, the soft colours forming serene landscapes with every elegant brush stroke. It is cool and calm and quiet, a world away from the busy city streets found in much of Shanghai. Just outside, the open paved space of Renmin square is surrounded by sky high office blocks, a reminder of the direction this bustling city has taken. It is a thought provoking juxtaposition of the countries historical roots and its commercialised yet productive future. At the edge of the square, a small selection of walkways are lined with trees and grass. This is Renmin park, a place where the community go to relax. The greenery is balanced with the grey stone pavements, and it is far from the lush grasslands we imagine in the west. But every bench is occupied with someone taking a break and enjoying a moment of tranquillity. It manages to provide a small corner of calm within the busy streets

Taking in the view of the Bund

Taking in the view on the Bund

Despite the bustling crowds, the city itself seems to retain a more laid back feeling than Beijing. It is undeniably busy, and it is certainly business orientated, but the Hangpu river running through it and the gardens and parks dotted around provide an opportunity for leisure and relaxation. The famous skyline of the Bund, the skyscrapers on one side of the river and the old colonial buildings on the other provide a focus for relaxing tourists and locals seeking a breather from the business of everyday life. There are more smiles amongst the bustle, there is more breath between the constant stream of first impressions and more humanity in the bright lights that shine out their luminous yellows, pinks and greens into the night.

Artwork at M50 - the Moganshan art district

Artwork at M50 – the Moganshan art district

Also full of colour, but this time filling frames and hearts, the Moganshan art district continues the relaxed yet urban vibe of this thriving city. Crammed with galleries, there is a huge range of work to see. From photography to painting to printing, traditional to modern to conceptual, there is something here to captivate even the most sceptical of hearts. Wandering around the old warehouses is like a treasure hunt – a bit overwhelming at first, slightly lacklustre at times, but when you find something beautiful that moves you, it’s completely worth the hunt. We find a giant, 8 foot statue of a red baby riding a canon. There are simple prints of polar bears and penguins beside a room full of bright, primary coloured depictions of Chairman Mao and Che Guevara. There are black and white photographs of the picturesque river towns that lie just a few hours away. There are atmospheric landscapes, filled with light and colour and rushing water, depicting the wonder of this diverse country. Every gallery presents something different, and you are free to wander and browse at your leisure. It’s like a huge interconnected warren, each section curated with a different goal in mind and each gallery strongly distinct from the next.

A view over the metropolis

A view over the metropolis

On our final night, we look out over what feels like the whole world from the 87th floor bar of the World Financial Centre. Huge skyscrapers around us don’t seem so mind boggling when you look out from inside one. Down below cars are reduced to toys and traffic jams to snaking, stationery streams of brake lights. There is movement down below – people, individuals going about their lives – but from up here it’s all a blur. Hours fly by as we sit sipping endless re-fills of Jasmine tea and staring, mesmerized, at the view. It begins to darken and all across the city, the lights begin to come on. Bit by bit the darkness awakens and the colours come out to play and transform the city darkness into a world of endless lights. Each light is a signal, a sign of a person at work or a driver getting home. Each light has a heartbeat, a story to tell. While we can’t know them all, at least we can be grateful they are there, connecting us even a little, even unconsciously. The lights link us all together, and in this age of commercialisation and business isn’t it a necessity to have something that can hold us all, the beauty of a thousand lit up windows, a thousand lives bound together by this lifeline. Something we can all marvel at, wherever we are, if we stop for a second and appreciate the unobtrusive beauty of a night lit up by the lives lived within it.