Exploring Shanghai and Beijing
On arrival in Shanghai, I asked my guide a question I have been wanting to ask for the past week travelling around China, “why is there such rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai”, to which my guide aptly replied: “You’re half American Penny, it’s like comparing New York with Washington DC”, to which I myself born in Manhattan replied, “say no more!” Despite my joking bias with my guide, Beijing and Shanghai are both fascinating cities and to see only one, would be to read only half of a story.
Today, you can connect these two futuristic, metropolitan cities with a staggering combined population of over 47 million people, by high speed rail, which takes little over four hours on one of the fastest trains in the world, or by a 2-hour flight, as I did.
Post the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and the emergence of China’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s, in little over 30 years, China has become the second wealthiest country in the world and the scale of modernisation and transformation in these two major cities has been unparalleled in the modern world.
The government still controls all aspects of society, media, industry: you can’t walk down a street in either city without seeing some form of government propaganda poster or declaration about how to conduct oneself socially and economically in the eyes of the state. Although, as both cities have advanced economically, Western influence can be seen in everything from the abundance of food chains and luxury designers.
To see the old way of life is becoming increasingly difficult in both cities, which is why having an expert guide is of paramount importance. Residential housing has been removed to make way for tall apartment buildings; historical temples have been remodelled for gaudy newer places of worship, market streets have been rehoused in large, shopping centres and the many bicycles which used to be the main transport for residents in the city have also been usurped for cars; the more luxurious and expensive your vehicle, still signifies your stature in the community in China. Then of course there’s the pollution; Beijing is especially bad, but it’s omnipresent in both cities. Whilst on a bad day it can be unpleasant, the photos we are saturated with in the West paint a shocking picture and the reality is that the haze is infrequent and both cities have many blue sky days per year.
Accompanied by your guide, a walk in the hutongs of Beijing and the French Concession in Shanghai, offers a rare glimpse into the China of the past. There are few government authorities preserving buildings of historical interest, so there is a sense when travelling around these cities that you are privy to a history that may soon disappear altogether.
Snapshots of Shanghai
Shanghai has modernised without destroying all of the city’s colonial character. When renovating its striking Bund area, Shanghai’s planners were praised for restoring a riverfront quay to its 1930s glory; Beijing took flak for bulldozing many of its hutongs, the quaint alleys in the historic centre.
The lack of Chinese history in Shanghai contrasts sharply with Beijing, and some of the most fascinating stories to be told in Shanghai are actually Russian, America, French and Japanese. We have fantastic guides who can unlock all these fascinating tales and highly recommend a private tour of the old Jewish Quarter with a hand-picked historian. A large number of Jewish refugees fled to the city during the 1930s as it was one of the world’s the only open ports.
An enjoyable afternoon can be spent walking around Tianzifang: an arts and crafts enclave that has developed from a renovated traditional residential area in the well-preserved French Concession area of Shanghai, It is now home to boutique shops, bars and restaurants. Being China’s fashion capital, the city is fantastic for shopping and is home to renowned tailors and avant-garde independent shops.
Must-sees in Beijing
First made the Northern Capital in the world’s largest ever, land-based empire by the Mongol conqueror, Kublai Khan in 1271, Beijing has undertaken many different identities, with each era still represented in some way.
Beijing is, in some ways, a continuation rather than a rejection of its imperial past and the historical sights found here do not disappoint. Even the infamous Tiananmen Square is an enlargement of what used to be the Forbidden City’s southern entrance corridor.
It was the third Ming Emperor who cleared away the last vestiges of the Mongols and it was during his reign that the Forbidden City took its current form. To this day, it remains one of the best-preserved palaces in the world.
We can arrange for world-renowned architecture expert Diana Chan Chieng to take clients on an extraordinary journey through the magnificent ancient Imperial City, showcasing the history, architecture and hidden gems, whilst cleverly and subtlety avoiding the crowds and finding the hidden corners of the city. Our Experts can even secure exclusive access to the lavish sitting rooms of the Chonghua Palace, normally off-limits to the general public, and the former home Emperor Qianlong who lived there before his accession to the throne.
Modern Beijing can also be visually startling. The skyline alters almost daily with ever-taller skyscrapers and world-renowned architects have made their mark on the city.