December 26, 2019
On my way back to the US from Bangkok, I had an 8 hour layover in Shanghai, China. While Americans normally need a visa to visit China, we can visit visa-free in transit to a third country (or Hong Kong) for up to 72 hours. Since I was flying between Thailand and the United States, I qualified for this visa-exemption.
Clearing customs was an easy process but took nearly an hour due to the large number of steps required. I first had to scan my finger prints. Then I had to pass by a “health inspection” which consisted of a person with a temperature gun. After a train ride and a long walk, I reached the actual immigration check. The visa-free transit had a special line which was empty, but I had to fill out a form. Finally, my bag was scanned. Everything was done very professionally.
Once officially in China, I went to the bathroom. In the urinal, a placard said “Take One Step Forward”. In the US and in most touristy places, these signs are used in bars as a joke, but, being in the busiest airport in the world’s most populous country, interpreted this differently.
There are three options to get into the city: a taxi, the metro, or the world’s only commercially-operated maglev (a train that levitates using magnets). The decision was easy.
To get onto the Maglev, I purchased a ticket from the booth and then put my bag through a scanner. After 10 minutes in a waiting area, a voice spoke on the loudspeaker: “Dear passengers, please proceed to the train”. With that, we proceed down an escalator and boarded the pristine green train.
With a “Dear Passengers, the train is about to depart”, the Maglev took off. It accelerated for about 2 minutes until we reached the astonishing maximum speed of 431 km/hr (267 mph), making it the fastest train in the world. The curves were banked, so it felt like a roller coaster.
7 minutes later, we reached the end station having traveled a distance of 19 miles. Unfortunately, I was still on the outskirts of the city. To reach the actual city center, I had to transfer to the Shanghai metro network…and scan my bag again.
I took the metro for another 20 minutes and ended up in a squeaky clean district (neighborhood would be too generous) called YuYuan Garden. I walked through a stunning mall and into a dumpling restaurant. There, I met up with my friend Miles.
Miles is my oldest friend- we met on the very first day of preschool when we were 3 years old. Miles was in China to watch his brother Oliver marry his Chinese bride. The wedding was in a city in the south, but he and his other brother Danny decided to spend a couple days in Shanghai first. Despite the Chinese “Great Firewall”, I noticed he was in Shanghai and reached out. We were able to connect over iMessage which is not blocked.
We ate some amazing soup dumplings and caught up on life.
Then we wandered around the mall- which, while modern, was constructed to look like an ancient Chinese palace. Both Miles and I were shocked by the quality of this mall: both in terms of architecture and shops.
We then wandered through the nearby commercial district, full of not-fancy shops. The first thing you notice when walking around are the cameras. There are cameras everywhere and I mean EVERYWHERE. Every intersection had at least 20 cameras and probably more like 40. It was insane. You are being watched. Everywhere.
The benefit of the surveillance is that street crimes in Shanghai are probably nil. The downside is that the people are very reserved. Maybe it is cultural, maybe it is the cold winter weather, but the people seemed very deliberate with their actions. Nobody was hanging around. All interactions were short.
At one point, a Rolls Royce drove by. We laughed when speculating the government connections this person has in order to drive a Rolls Royce in a Communist country.
Eventually we reached Shanghai’s most famous landmark: The Bund. The Bund is a riverfront district with historic European-style buildings. From the 1860’s-1930’s, this was the location of a huge British (and later American) presence in China and operated as an international port. Many financial institutions such as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) set up shop here.
Today, tourists visit The Bund to take the postcard pictures of the Shanghai skyline.
We then headed to a nearby rooftop bar. The cover was a steep $20 but included a drink. Mojitos in hand, Miles and I toasted to our friendship as the skyline lit up!
I had another hour to spend, so we then walked down Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s most famous shopping street. I thought I had seen it all at Bangkok’s ICONSIAM, but Nanjing Road was something else. For miles, this street is lined with nothing but malls and flagship stores (of mostly large foreign brands). After seeing a 5-story mall, the next building would be a 7-story mall. It just didn’t end.
There were so many shops on Nanjing Road that there were repeats. For example, Adidas has two flagship stores 10 blocks apart. Nike had only 1 store, but they also had an Air Jordan flagship store. After one mile of walking, we reached the People’s Square, a public green space. Since it was night, we didn’t go into the park but instead explored the adjacent 11-story mall.
Now I understand why brands fuss so much over trying to get into China. Not only is the population 3-4 times that of the US, but the wealthy people value brand names far more than Westerners. As a result, they shop a LOT.
With that, it was time to head back to the airport.
A layover in Shanghai is both doable and worthwhile. In my short 4.5 hours in Shanghai, I felt like I got a good glimpse into the power of both the Chinese government and the consumerism of the Chinese customer- things that are heavily discussed in both the media and in the business world. I definitely saw enough in Shanghai to make my visit to China “count” as my 64th country, but certainly only scratched the surface. Next time, I would hope to visit some cultural and historic sites. I will be back.