Hangzhou is one of these places that truly surprise you about China. Somehow, it manages to combine business and factories with inspiring landscapes without one really noticing a drastic change of scenery. As soon as we arrived at the train station, we realized that Hangzhou wasn’t the provincial town we had envisioned – it was a capital city with over 6 million habitants (many of them hanging around the extremely busy station, for whatever reason!).

For a second, we debated whether we might have actually gotten off the wrong stop or, even worse, taken a completely wrong train.

But we didn’t.

Completely unprepared (without a map, a chinese dictionary or any kind of reference) we hopped on a cab and entertained the cab driver with our 10 different ways to explain “West Lake”. One of the girls I learned the cardinal points in chinese and kept on repeating “Xi ! Xi!” while the rest of us played roles of drowning people, swimmers and sailors. I honestly understand why chinese cab drivers were often pissed off – us tourists are such a waste of time!

I’m not sure whether it was thanks to our great mimics or just because he thought that by driving any direction we would finally shut up, but somehow we landed kind of where we wanted – The West Lake.

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

The West Lake was just as I had imagined a chinese lake surrounded by mountains and gardens – romantic and mysterious. Below are some of my favorite in Hangzhou.

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

West Lake, Hangzhou (China)

Have you been to Hangzhou? Do you know any other place like this?

Friends and colleagues warned be before my departure: I was crazy to fly over 12 hours across two continents for only 7 days of fun. I knew it was impossible to visit each corner of the country I had been longing so much to explore – but I was determined to do as much as I could physically and mentally withstand.

And so, in addition to exploring Shanghai’s history and culture, we managed to squeeze in a day in Beijing, another one in Hangzhou and, of course, a trip to the Great Wall.

Mutianyu Great Wall, China

Mutianyu is one of the best preserved parts of the Great Wall, located at about 70 km from Beijing (which, when counted in rush hour, can mount up to almost 4 hours in a tiny bus!).

Mutianyu Great Wall, China

Being so close to Beijing, we expected a large tourist influx. But at arrival we were surprised to see that it was actually possible to have parts of the path entirely for ourselves. Ok, this usually didn’t last longer than a minute before the next visitor walked along – but still, we had enough time to take shots without anyone’s red cap or socks and sandals disturbing the historic view.

Mutianyu Great Wall, China

Unfortunately, we weren’t exactly equipped for a stoney old stair expedition – one of my friends was wearing wedges and the other one a similarly uncomfortable shoe. I, on the other hand, thought I was a smart ass by wearing my Five Fingers. Well, let me tell you something here: think twice about wearing them for a considerable long time on a really hot day!

As we reached the bottom of the BIG CLIMB (dramatic, right?) my feet felt as swollen as a foot of a hobbit. My friend-in-wedges had given up earlier, so it was only two of us left. Would dragging ourselves up there be really worth it?

Mutianyu Great Wall, China

Well, when you’re on the Great Wall of China – you can be assured it always is.

Mutianyu Great Wall, China

Hiking the Great Wall of China

Practical Information

Route: Mutianyu (From Tower 6 to Tower 20 – Towards Jiankou)
Elevation gain uphill: 400m
Elevation gain downhill: 180m
Length: less than 4 km
Duration: 2 hrs
Difficulty: Fairly Easy
Map: Mutianyu Great Wall

Have you been on the Great Wall? Which section would you recommend?

The Yu Yuan Garden, located just a few steps from Shanghai’s Bund in Old Shanghai, is a 2 hectares large garden full of secrets, hideaway and beautiful adornments. It’s name, I read, translates literally into “Garden of Happiness”.

I kind of understand why.

Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai

The garden covers seven sub-gardens, each of which is completely surrounded by walls with fantasy gateways connecting each one to the next. Gateways had different forms and sizes – from circular ones to more detailed shaped ones!

Gateways in Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai

Walking through the different sections, we came across beautiful garden pavilions and terraces, each symbolizing Old Shanghai’s elegance. Some of the pavilions are named after popular chinese poems, which can often be found inscribed on the pillars, hanging on either side of the gates or in the halls.

Pavilions in Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai

It’s easy to fall in love with this place – gold-fish swimming in small ponds, beautiful architecture and blooming flowers everywhere. But the devil (or dragon, in this case) is in the detail. When visiting Yu Yuan, a great part of surprises can be seen when looking up, above your usual eye level. I was excited to find several dragons as part of a wall or the roof of pavilions!

Dragon Wall in Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai

Dragon, Yu Yuan Garden, Shanghai

The whole garden is so delicately designed that we spent hours wandering through it and never really had enough of it. More than just a tourist attraction (which it still is – given the large amount of chinese tourists capturing each and every corner of it), it is a place to spend half or even a full day. All you need is a camera, a book (or even a sketch book!) and a large bottle of water. In such a poetic atmosphere, inspiration will come in no time.

Finding inspiration in Yu Yuan, Shanghai

Have you been to Yu Yuan Garden? Where, otherwise, would you go to find inspiration?

One of the many advantages of visiting a friend living abroad is that, after a short time, you can already get a grip of his or her daily life in this city. You’ll quickly understand which aspects they enjoy the most and which drive them mad.

After only 6 days in Shanghai, I already had built my thoughts over the city and the life I would live if I moved in for a few months time.

The Great

Shanghai's Skyline, from Bar Rouge

  • The Rooftops. I admit it – over the years, I’ve become a bar snob. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy drinks at the local pub. But give me leather sofas, a terrace, a breath-taking view, and an extensive cocktail menu… and I’m sold. I hardly ever step into these places in London (probably because the weather isn’t always good for outdoor lounges and because drinks are prohibitively expensive), but be assured that I would become a regular at Shanghai’s rooftops.
  • Beauty and Well-Being is affordable. During our 6 days in Shanghai, we managed to squeeze in a foot massage, a full body massage, a mani and a pedi. If I’d live there, I would probably make massages a weekly habit – who wouldn’t, for less than 20 USD?

The Good

  • Getting around. Shanghai, compared to Beijing, is fairly walkable. There are some beautiful parks and many leafy streets that allow pedestrians to walk in the shadow on those hot summer days. Being the largest city by population in China, with over 23m people, it cannot be compared to the walkability of Stockholm, of course. You can’t expect to go without public transport! However, public transport works well and is also very affordable.
  • Restaurant diversity. As a tourist, restaurant diversity isn’t something you particularly appreciate in a city – after all, tasting local food is part of the experience. And let me tell you – the Chinese have some really tasty dishes, but they also have quite exotic menus. So, when you’re expecting to stay for a longer period of time, having other cuisines at your disposal (maybe even your home food!) will make it easier to adapt.
  • The culture. China’s culture is very different from anything I had lived before, it’s fascinating. There are so many things to learn from it! If I lived in Shanghai, I know I would sign up for a dumplings master class, I would pick up Kung Fu and do Tai Chi in the park.

The Bad

Funny Chinese Signs

  • The Language barrier. Imagine you’re on your way to a stylish restaurant, and suddenly come across this sign. What do you expect? A toilet? A restaurant? A restaurant serving delicious food in a toilet? Chinese is hard to learn, and not all Chinese people will speak perfectly english. This makes daily life much more challenging!
  • Giving up your personal space. The first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped into Shanghai’s Airport was the amount of people – it was very crowded. I soon learned that this was not particular to the airports – but anywhere you’ll go. People grew up with little space and therefore, their concept of personal space is different from mine. They are more comfortable with up-close and personal interaction, so it’s common to notice people staring and pointing at you, pushing you in a line or looking over your shoulder to see what you’re doing. Having trouble not freaking out in Oxford Circus during lunch time… I doubt I could do this for too long in Shanghai.
  • The Goodbyes. This is something common to all big cities that have a wide expat community – expats often don’t stay more than a year (specially in developing countries), so even though it’s fun to constantly meet new faces… It is also tough and daunting to say goodbye to the friends you’ve made. I’ve been living away from home for 10 years now, and goodbyes haven’t become any easier…

The Ugly

Shanghai Skyline

  • Traffic, pollution and fearing for your life. Traffic is a big issue in Shanghai – there a re just far too many cars! Traffic jam is a common problem at any time of the day. As a pedestrian, you should never assume that green light actually gives you the right-of-way. I learned that, specially bus and taxi drivers, hardly ever obey traffic lights… which makes every road cross a scary adventure.
  • The ultimate culture shock. Before traveling to China, many people warned me about some of the customs that are different from the western World – the concept of private space just being one of them. The constant spitting is probably something I wouldn’t necessarily get used to over time, together with having children pee or poo in the streets or tube stations!

Have you been to China? What other things would you add to this list?

French Concession, Shanghai China

Shanghai is also known as the Paris of the East. This is no wonder – during 100 years, the city was partly occupied by the french. After the Chinese loss of the Opium Wards in 1842, Shanghai was forced to open to international business. The french obtained concession of certain terrain for settlement, which had its own laws and enforcement. Even though it started as a settlement for the french, it soon attracted english, americans and russians, the common point being their affluence and influence. It was home of the wealthy Shanghailanders (foreigners living in Shanghai).

Late 1930s, when the Japanese army invaded the city, many Shanghailanders left. Those remaining, were put in concentration camps at the height of WWII. By 1946, both, the Japanese and most Westerns had gone and Shanghai was cut off from the World.

The city remained almost untouched for 40 years.

Unfortunately, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of unregulated re-development took place in the area, tearing apart many neighborhoods. Some of the most remarkable buildings were substituted by modern high-rise developments.

French Concession Skyline, Shanghai

Since the change of millennia, the Chinese Government has limited and regulated the re-development in this part of the city, in order to retain part of its historic feel. In some parts, you even get the impression to be time traveling back to 1930s.

Time Travel in the French Concession, Shanghai

Fuxing Park, where I came across this old timer, is the only French Style park in Shanghai – with a lake in the center, several small fountains, covered pavilions and beautiful flowerbeds. My favorite part of the park was its tree-shaded walkways, where seniors got together to chat or play chess and card games.

Fuxing Park, French Consession Shanghai

The buildings themselves were unique in style. I expected to be transported to the Paris of the 1930s, but instead, I found it to be a rare mix of western and eastern architecture. A mixture of old and new. I liked it. It was easy to read the city’s history through the lines of the buildings. Some low-rise colonial french style villas still remain, blending in with art deco designs, high-rise luxurious and modern apartment blocks on leafy streets.

Architecture in the French Concession, Shanghai

Today, the French Concession is one of Shanghai’s most expensive terrains. Expats and artists make the atmosphere trendy and exclusive. Tree-lined streets are filled with little fashion boutiques, while wider streets boast expensive shopping malls. When lunch or dinner time approaches, groups or friends and couples make their way to one of the stylish bars and restaurants. In the French Concession, one can find any type of cuisine – from original spanish tapas, the best italian wine bars and beautiful french cafes to modern Vietnamese cuisine and fresh quality sushi.

Gate in the French Concession, Shanghai

While my stay in Shanghai, I visited some great bars and restaurant in this area, which deserve an individual post – stay tuned!

Have you ever visited the French Concession in Shanghai? Which were your impressions?