x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Patience and a phrase book are essentials for exploring China

From the moment I landed in China, it was clear that the language barrier would be an obstacle.

From the moment I landed in China, it was clear that the language barrier would be an obstacle. As it turned out, it was more so than in any of the countries I had visited so far. By the time I left China, I had created my own sign language for phrases such as "room available?", "U-turn" and "panda conservation centre", which I'm sure the locals found amusing. A friend had warned me not to travel in China without a phrase book so I picked up the dual-text pocket-sized Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook at Hong Kong Airport (HK$90; Dh43). Though I needed repeated attempts at proper pronunciation and sometimes gave up and just pointed to text in the book, it was absolutely invaluable throughout my next few weeks in China.

I asked the tourist information centre at Shanghai Airport to jot down my hostel address in Mandarin and hopped on to the Maglev, a high-speed train to the centre of the city (40 yuan; Dh22). Passengers rushed to take photos as the public speedometer on the train reached 301kph. The Maglev set the pace for my time in China and I'm still wondering how I managed to see so much in such a short time. On my first night, I headed to Shanghai's Corniche-like promenade, the Bund, which stretches along the bank of the Huangpu River.

The crowd along the promenade, mainly locals, was overwhelming, with people almost spilling into the river. Initially, I thought I'd stumbled across a special event of some sort. No, that's just China. Whenever I stepped outside, it felt like New Year's Eve. China was easily the busiest country I'd been to - the mayhem was unavoidable. If you try to avoid rush hour, you'll walk right into a new wave of people traffic. Once I accepted this fact and factored extra queuing or metro time into my excursions, it became easier to plan my days.

It's hard to imagine the Bund was transformed into a pedestrian zone just a year ago. The old colonial architecture buildings now house primarily expensive hotels, shops, bars and restaurants. Across the Huangpu River I could see Shanghai's Pudong District; the uber-modern Shanghai skyline seen on most postcards. There was modern Shanghai to the east, old Shanghai to the west. Which should I explore first?

I spent no more than half a day in Pudong. The district's glass skyscrapers are impressive, but it has the same international chains of shops, malls and hotels you can find in any major city. Perhaps I had already been spoilt by Dubai and Hong Kong; Pudong seemed geared more towards expatriates than tourists. As for city views, rather than pay to get to the top of a building, you can get a similar view from any high-tower hotel bar without having to buy a ticket or queue. I found Cloud 9 at the Grand Hyatt, on the 87th floor, to be high enough.

My favourite part of this sprawling cosmopolitan city was on the other side of the river. The quaint French Concession and surrounding areas are dotted with independent Chinese shops and cafes in colonial buildings, giving it an air of eccentricity. A little farther central are the Yuyuan Bazaar and Gardens, the classical Chinese gardens engulfed by steam from nearby dumpling stalls and the sound of vendors selling bamboo cutlery, and, of course, the chatter of crowds.

Shanghai City Central Youth Hostel (140 yuan [Dh76] per person per night, including free Wi-Fi) is a large, sociable place located on a main road opposite a metro station with a full range of facilities (travel booking, laundry, lockers, cafe, TV, housekeeping etc). The World Cup had just become more interesting as the Netherlands-Brazil quarter-final approached: a perfect opportunity to see what Shanghai's night life had to offer. Once the sun had gone down, the French Concession areas turned into a pedestrian-only, reveller-only zone with locals and foreignerspouring out onto the streets. Dutch and Indians speaking Chinese, Chinese wearing green wigs, Spaniards belting out World Cup songs and myself with a Netherlands flag on my cheek - Shanghai felt like a truly multicultural hub.

Visitors to Shanghai this year will find it difficult not to feel a compulsion to visit the Expo (160 yuan; Dh86 for a one-day pass). As expected from the sheer numbers of people I had seen so far, the queues to enter each pavilion were unbelievable. I headed directly for supposedly the most impressive, Germany's: a six-hour queue. America, five-hour queue. UAE, a four-hour queue. I decided to take a superficial, scratch-the-surface tour instead; highly recommended if you have just one day. Nothing can prepare you for the scale and bustle of the Expo. From the China's inverted Forbidden City and the UAE's golden sand dune to Saudi Arabia's elevated city and "largest screen on earth", I am still trying to get my head around the physics of some of the pavilion buildings.

Shanghai is well-placed for a day trip to nearby historical towns and cities. Zhujaijao is one of the "quieter" towns, but it was still inevitably busy by non-China standards. Regular buses leave from Shanghai to this canal town full of alleyways dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties (85 yuan [Dh46] bus fare and 30 yuan [Dh16] admission fee). It has arguably become a tourist trap, with plenty of stalls selling items from Obama mugs to fake passports, but between these you can find hand-painted antiques and the famous Chinese red clay pottery. Contained within four walls, Zhujaujio was a picturesque taster of the cultural sights, sounds and smells China had to offer as I travelled farther inland and up towards Beijing.

I made a stop in Hangzhou, a town on the impressive West Lake. Its lush green, inviting atmosphere and pedestrian-only causeways make you feel like you've stepped into an Oriental film set. This was a taste of the old China I was looking for. The West Lake Youth Hostel is a small but charming place to stay, and Hangzhou's cheap public bike scheme is a convenient and fun way to get around. There's plenty to see, from the Tea Museum to the breathtaking view of the lake from the top of the Leifeng Pagoda. The train ride from Shanghai cost 144 yuan (Dh78), while the West Lake Youth Hostel charges 155 yuan (Dh84) per person per night, with free Wi-Fi.

Next week: Ismat visits the famed Terracotta Army in Xian