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Shanghai Surprise

Shanghai, China

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With so many destinations describing themselves as the 'Paris of wherever', or the 'Jewel of the somewhere' it's refreshing to find a city that can sell itself as the 'whore of the Orient'! Less than a hundred years ago, Shanghai was parceled out among foreign powers as the West discovered China. Today it's the world's largest construction site – you can virtually fling open your hotel curtains to a new skyline each morning. Catch historical Shanghai while you can - it's literally vanishing overnight as the past is bulldozed to make way for the future.

Shanghai's divided by the Huangpu river, with Pudong to the east and Puxi to the west, but tourists will orientate themselves by the Bund. Everyone gravitates here. The Bund is named for its origin as a towpath to pull the barges of rice, fortified with embankments against flooding. Today a stroll around the Bund, especially at night or early in the morning, provides a reminder of Old Shanghai's cosmopolitan and decadent heyday. Take a Huangpu river cruise - the more expensive the better - for superb views of the Bund and riverfront activity. Shanghai is one of the world's busiest ports and the atmosphere is unbeatable: thriving cutthroat commerce crossed with traditional culture and the cosmopolitan sense of the exotic that all truly international ports seem to generate. Freighters, bulk carriers, roll-on roll-off ships and ferries, sampans, junks and even Chinese naval vessels jostle for space surrounded by the giant cranes loading and unloading at breakneck speed.

The French Concession is another part of Shanghai that's good to explore on foot or by bike. This is romantic Shanghai - tree-lined streets, 1930s cafes and bars. Huaihai Zhouglu, Shanghai's premier shopping street is here too, along with some of Shanghai's best restaurants. If your idea of Chinese food is based on what you can get back home, you're in for an awakening when you dine out in Shanghai.

Of course, Shanghai's part of communist China, so there's the obligatory imposing public square. In this case it’s Renmin Square, but unlike the rather forbidding austerity of Tianamen Square in Beijing, Renmin Square is the scene of kite-flying, skating and dancing. In one corner of the Square is the French-designed Shanghai Grand Theatre - nicknamed the Crystal Palace - which looks unbelievable at night. Rather than pay for a guided tour, get a ticket for a performance, especially if there's acrobatics or Chinese opera on the program. In another corner is the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall - well worth a visit if you have even a passing interest in how we're going to be living in fifty years' time.

The Shanghai Museum is on every visitor's itinerary, and rightly so. Established in 1952, it was completely rebuilt in 1994 at a cost of 700 million US dollars. Like so much in Shanghai, its state-of-the-art. Museums just don't come bigger or better than this. Instead of being daunted or overwhelmed you'll find yourself guided through millennia of Chinese history and culture through crafts and artifacts. The collection of bronzes is probably the most famous of all. Some are as old as the 21st century BC! There are also collections dedicated to sculpture, Chinese painting, calligraphy, ceramics, jade and Ming and Qing furniture. A completely different culture with a long and glorious history is laid out for you to marvel at here. Save some time and energy for the Minority Nationalities Art gallery to get a feel of the sheer diversity of China: some fifty-six different ethnic groups are represented here.

The Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar in the Old Town may be slightly tacky, but don't let that put you off. The Bazaar has over a hundred specialist shops in an old-fashioned Cathay setting. The mid-lake teahouse in the Gardens is more authentic - the famous zig-zag causeway is supposed to thwart the evil spirits who could only walk in straight lines. Whilst you're in the Old Town stroll along to the Dongtai Lu antique market and browse for souvenirs of pre-war and Communist Shanghai. Beautiful silks are available at the Dongjadu cloth market and the nearby Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market has to be seen to be believed.

Cross the river to Pudong to come bang up-to-date in the business district. There are no museums here - this is the architecture of the future. Take a ride up the Jinmao Tower - Shanghai's most beautiful, most spectacular building - to the 340m high observation deck and see it all for yourself. If you can't afford to stay in the Grand Hyatt, splash out on a drink in the Cloud 9 bar while you're here.

Shanghai is a city in a hurry, a city ahead of the curve. Shanghai is what the 21st century is going to look like, so come now for a glimpse of the future.

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