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Bangers in Shangers: My First Trip to Shanghai

Traveling to a foreign country can be a very humbling experience, especially when you don’t speak the language. Resorting to hand gestures and awkward facial expressions quickly become your new mode of communication, and trust me when I say that non-verbal communication in foreign countries is not always universal.

When we’re traveling abroad, it’s only natural that we seek solace in establishing relationships with those who speak the same language, often connecting through intimate, nostalgic conversations about the “old country.” This blog covers highlights from my recent trip to Shanghai with a tour group (of which I defected from along with several other American rascals, as soon the guide handed back our passports).

Traveling enables us to try new things and as a savvy traveler, I assumed China would be no different. But I ask you, how far is a Westerner really willing to go? As someone who considers herself a pretty adventurous person (especially when it comes to food), it got to a point (day two) that I would have literally rather starved to death than eat. To say that the food was SALTY AND FRIED was an understatement. By day three, I couldn’t get my rings off. Of course, it wasn’t until the last day I found out the food wasn’t actually as bad as what we were being served, but the tour guide only took us to the cheap, buffet style restaurants,because that was included in the package price.

Needless to say, those restaurants have traumatized me for life, and I might not ever be able to eat Chinese food again. In fact, I’m looking into therapy. I get cold sweats and a strange, chalky sensation in my mouth every time I see a Chinese restaurant. I shit you not. Just looking at an advertisement for Chinese restaurant leaves me somewhere on the verge between imminent death and self destruction.

As I mentioned before, when traveling through China, you’ll notice very few people speak English and even the employees in some of the swanky, new hotels are no exception. A friend of mine asked one employees where he could find the pool. The staff person responded pleasantly, “There is no one in room 2410.” Um, great. That sorted out that problem. So, I probably should have ordered room service in the same area where I would need to hail a cab, since going on his logic, that would have made the most sense.

Speaking of hailing a cab, if you decide to hail one, DO NOT stand in the street. This is like playing Russian roulette with your life and it is without a doubt that a scooter will hit you. There are two problems with being in or around a street in China. First, scooters in China are electric, so you can’t hear them. Second, scooters and cars stop for no one, so you shouldn’t stop either. They are anticipating that you will keep walking, so they usually try to navigate around you. If you stop, consider yourself road kill.

Now that we’ve gotten safety precautions and basic travel knowledge out of the way, let me actually tell you about my trip. This was probably the most rewarding travel experiences that I’ve had in years. I would not have changed any of it.

*Day 1 and 8 were spent sleeping on planes.

DAY 2

Every morning started with a buffet breakfast in whatever hotel we happened to be staying in. The saying, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” could not be closer to the truth. If you didn’t eat breakfast that morning (depending on what the tour had planned for lunch and dinner), you might not eat the rest of the day. I took it upon myself to gorge every morning at breakfast.The buffet spreads were out of control: Pastries, eggs, different meats and cheeses, curries, Asian breakfast items that looked questionable, various juices, cereal, other small animals ect.

After breakfast we visited the Urban Planning Center and saw an exact replica of the city of Shanghai, which was followed by The Shanghai Museum, which probably wasn’t that necessary because everything there will probably end up at the Getty eventually.

My first lunch in China was a bit more exciting. Everything was served family style on ‘Lazy Susan’ table centers, while we enjoyed a live performance from dancing Thai boys and girls(most random lunch of all time). Navigating back to the bus after lunch was also an adventure, as we tried dodging street vendors, who were selling fake designer watches and handbags. This, of course, gave me gnarly anxiety and I didn’t know whether to buy, scream, or swat at people.

Already on a travel high and about to board the bus for another two hour drive, my friends and I decided the only remedy to being stuck on a bus would be to drink a shit ton of beer. So, we commandeered the back of the bus, smuggled on copious amounts of Chinese beer, and everyone drank while I told stories about Papa Rooch to pass the time. We were fine until the beer caught up with us, and I was selected to ask the bus driver to pull over at a rest stop.

Forty-Five minutes later, we were in the middle of nowhere and I was instructed to use the building over on the left. If I would have known the toilet situation previously, I would have been prepared, but alas I was not. I was completely ill-prepared for these “hole-in-the-ground with no toilet paper” toilets. This it was back on the bus for another 30 minutes until we finally reached our destination: a Chinese garden (one of many that we visited). We then had he pleasure of getting on a nearby, sinking boat for a short canal ride to an outdoor market where they sold questionable food items.

DAY 3

The second day started much like the first– another ridiculous buffet breakfast and then it was another seemingly long drive to yet another garden. My tour guide called it the Lingering Garden, “We will have Kodak moment in Lingering Garden, where we will linger. Very Picturesque. Yes.” He must have repeated that same EXACT phrase close to 15 times.

Then it was off to a silk factory. We learned less about how silk was made, and more about how to buy Chinese silk products, if you catch my drift.

It was at this point in the tour I realized it was time to break off from the group, if I really wanted to get to know China. A few of us decided to defect and wander the streets, until it started raining. We hailed two separate cabs and ended up back at the hotel. After few beers and a much coveted Subway sandwich, someone came up with the idea that we should get massages. It was fine until we realized the massage parlor was a “special” massage parlor that offered “special” massages for business men. They shoved four of us in one room, and we were allowed to remain clothed. The couple from Las Vegas, however, was not as fortunate. They were asked to get naked in a private room. My gay friend from Long Beach was given a “lovely, little silk pajama set” to wear and his own room. It was a bizarre sequence of events; I will not elaborate.

DAY 4

On the third day we had a different tour guide. Apparently the original guide had a government mandated day off. This guide took us to Wuxi, a city outside of Shanghai, where we visited a Turtle Park, a city famous for a statue that is half turtle and half dragon. Next, we stopped at fresh water pearl farm. Again we learned a little about fresh water pearls and spent over an hour in a pearl jewelry store. The highlight of day three was a temple we stopped at later in the afternoon. We spent close to three hours in this park, which was known for housing the largest Buddha statue in the world. I took over 40 pictures at this place alone, but most of them are blurry or awkward, and you can’t really tell if I’m taking a picture of a statue or someone in a ridiculous outfit.

Day 5

Highlights from day four included a three hour drive to a city called Hanjo, where we had another pleasant boat ride and spent some time at green tea plantation. I actually did end up buying tea there and now I’m obsessed. I will note that the ride itself wasn’t really a ‘highlight’ except that one of the guys in our group MacGyvered his portable, Internet tablet to a seat, so we were able to watch the musical Chicago and his girl friend passed out Chinese snacks that she bought at the rest stop. Snacks included Lays potato chips in Cheese Lobster flavor, Italian Red Meat flavor, Lime flavor, and Fried Prawn flavor. I also sampled something that I thought was fudge, but it turned to powder as soon as I took a bite. As an aside, I’m still trying to figure out what why someone would want to mix cheese and lobster.

Day 6

The fifth day we circled back to Shanghai, so it was another three hour bus ride and then a brief stint at a local jade museum. My favorite part was visiting the Bund, Shanghai’s water front. At night the lights from the high rise buildings are absolutely breathtaking and the best, unobstructed view is from a boat.

Day 7

Day six was one of the more memorable days spent in Shanghai. We wandered through this famous outdoor bazaar for 4 hours.The high light of this shopping extravaganza was getting locked in a room, behind an alley, while trying to buy fake designer handbags. It was either death or purchase (I’m being totally dramatic), so I chose purchase. Surprisingly, I have no buyer’s remorse.

The early evening was spent across the Bund in new Shanghai. We settled in at the International Financial Center, which housed designer shops and a Morton’s Steakhouse, known among Americans as the best place for Happy Hour because they pass out free steak sandwiches if you’re drinking martinis. After Morton’s we got lost trying to find a little corridor (I believe it was called Tianxi), which housed quaint shops and restaurants. I was so glad when we found this diamond in the rough, I went crazy taking pictures. The shops and restaurants are so cute, I had a moment where I thought I could actually live in China. Of course, that subsided as soon as we got back on the subway and a man happened to cough directly into my mouth. Impeccable aim, really.

I realize this blog tends to use a lot of hyperbole in describing my Chinese adventures, and I hope this doesn’t deter anyone from visiting China. You really have to experience it first hand to appreciate how vastly different it is there. I hold a special place in my heart for both China and the people I met on this trip. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Originally published in 2012. When transferring blog from previous domain, all original photos were lost. 

TravelGina Ruccione