Venturing out into my new city

By Hong Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-07 06:28

There is nothing adventurous in me. Having lived and worked in Shanghai for nearly six months now, I have never been to any tourist attractions in this charming city, or visited any neighbouring water towns, famous for their old canals and arch bridges. I live about a 10 minutes walk from the Bund, the pride of Shanghai, adorned with imposing old buildings along the western bank of the Huangpu River. I've only seen it from inside a speeding taxi.

I never knew what a banal life I had been living until I met an English gentleman and his wife who shared a table with me at a Starbuck's coffee house near my office on Central Huaihai Road. I was reading a magazine and overheard them chatting about the places they had been to that morning.

It turned out that this charming couple has been traveling almost incessantly since their retirement some 10 years ago. The husband, a tall and well-trimmed man in his sixties, talked lovingly about the countries and cities they have visited, some of which I'd never heard of before.

What fascinated me most was that wherever they went, they usually shunned the tourist attractions. "We'd rather wander around in the streets to savor the real sights and sounds of the city," the wife said. Of course, they have visited the world-class monuments, such as the Great Wall in China and the Taj Mahal of India, just like any other tourists. But the couple find the greatest time they have in a strange city is to just walk around, see how the local people live and taste the real local food.

This had never occurred to me to be fun. Infected by their enthusiasm, I decided to try it out myself.

So, one Sunday afternoon, after taking care of my usual household chores, I ventured out of my apartment and hit the road. It's convenient for me because my apartment block is located right in the middle of the old city at Renmin Road. Avoiding the thoroughfare, I took a side street that led me to Guangdong Road, lined on both sides with small shops selling a huge variety of goods and produce at prices that are said to be considerably lower than in supermarkets and department stores.

On one stretch of the long street, there are a dozen of so wholesale stores that sell shampoo and other hair-care products by the gallons. Convenience stores abound as in many other areas in Shanghai and there seems to be at least one restaurant in every block along the street.

Hawkers selling phone cards, clothing, toys and snacks lay out their ware on the sidewalks teaming with people, while cars, honking furiously, were fighting with hordes of motorcycles and bicycles to squeeze through the two-way traffic on the narrow street. The cacophony of people shouting, car honking and the screeching noise of grinding metal at a window frame workshop is what the English couple would consider the sounds of the city.

Making a turn at a side street led me to Fuzhou Road, made famous by Book City, a giant multi-storey bookstore. In the foreign language section on the third floor, I was amazed by the big collection of exercise books to help students pass many different English-language examinations. A sizeable crowd of young people gathered at the long tables flipping through the pile of such books lying there. There was hardly anyone at the shelves where English-language novels were kept. That, perhaps, was a reliable reflection of the reading habits of the young people of Shanghai.

It was getting dark by the time I got to Sichuan North Road, which was largely deserted by that time. The only activities came from a number of high-class restaurants catering to the city's rich. It was too early for the guests to arrive. The street was quiet except for the bantering of the parking attendants outside a particularly fancy restaurant that specialized in shark fin soup and other rare delicacies.

Turning into another side street, whose name I forgot, there were a few bars and eateries that were of a much more modest decor. A big sign outside one restaurant assured prospective customers that the average bill for eating there was no more than 30 yuan, or less than US$4. A waitress there told me that they cater to many tourists from the neighbouring cities and counties, who didn't seem to have too positive an impression of the business practices of Shanghai caterers.

I probably ordered too much food that night. The bill was an above-average 36 yuan (US$4.5). That was the only touristy thing I did all day.

(China Daily 11/07/2006 page4)

Hot Talks
Most Commented/Read Stories in 48 Hours