I used to believe China changed fairly quickly when the shops in my neighbourhood would suddenly disappear to become a tea or shoe shop. I think I didn’t imagine the proportion and the price of those changes until I went to Shanghai. That big modern city is probably the fastest changing landscape I have ever seen, and while I wasn’t realising the scale of it having only seen the Bund and its huge buildings a walk with Bert from Context Travel was going to change my mind.
I met my guide, an architect from Belgium who moved to China a few years back not far from the old Jewish ghettos of Shanghai. Being the first day of the Chinese New Year I was greeted by a very quiet town on a bright sunny day. Luck was definitely on my side and we began the walk of our Accelerated City tour.
When Bert mentioned that every time he was doing this tour the conditions were changing and it was never the same I didn’t really understand. It’s only when we made it to the demolition site that his words made sense. In the middle of those big buildings, of that busy town was this village. Buildings in pieces, the wooden foundations easy to spot, surrounded by debris and the pace of life of an entire community that was suddenly moved, to make way for a luxury building project. Only cats and the noise of dripping water were greeting us in those empty streets. It was like stepping in a different world. And in the middle of this strange phantom city was this street. A place where life was still taking place, where people were refusing to move and were holding their ground until the day when they would no longer be given a choice. Mainly elderly people were still there in those strange conditions, surrounded by desolation just to not leave their houses, just to keep the memories a little longer.
Moving from this to discover the project that was going to replace this area, those immense luxury towers where only the richest could afford an apartment choked me. Passing from the barking street dogs and debris of houses covering the floor to a guard watching the entrance of an immense tower where a Ferrari was parked is probably the best way to represent Shanghai. We kept on moving, me clearly incapable of getting those images out of my head. We were now moving to the longest building of town. Built by Victor Sassoon in the form of an S ( consider that his hotel on the Bund is shaped like a V… Yes… V.S. , his initials ) this is an old building where older generations and ex-pats share. While these were of a similar architectural style to the previous buildings it’s the next part of the tour that really began to showcase the contrast of Shanghai.
As we made our way in to the Bund, the more modern and glamorous side of the city began to show through. Old well-preserved buildings with many big brand names, this clearly wasn’t the same Shanghai we witnessed a few minutes earlier. We moved in the luxury hotels, discovered the beautiful work of restoration made to them before getting out back in an unexpected crowd. While the rest of town was gone for the day the Bund was a different matter. People were packed there hoping to get a shot at that famous landscape.
And after the old gorgeous ballrooms and the High Teas shared by the elite in those old fashioned hotel I was certainly ready to move on to the financial part of town, Pudong. To think this area was only recently built is unbelievable. The amount of towers competing against each other to be higher or more original would make you think that the projects were going on for a long time. Towers against towers. The pearl of Shanghai, the “bottle-opener”, all those recognisable landscapes that popped out in only a few years are certainly a proof of China’s economic strength.
A quick ferry ride later and there we were, facing those huge towers, my neck starting to hurt from looking up so much and Bert making his way through the priciest hotel lobby to get us to the top floors and get us to the best views and oh the views… With little clouds and a rare blue sky the sunset we witnessed was surely one of the most amazing things I have seen in this town. I felt lucky. Lucky to be there and get to enjoy this. And this was the best ending to this tour. In the space of 3 hours we only walked along a river that I was noticing now watching the view and in such little time I witnessed so many different landscapes. I am not a fan of big cities but this made me change my mind.
Would I recommend the experience ? Definitely. Bert is an amazing guide and Context travel and him have put together one of the best walks you could get in Shanghai. You don’t need to be an architect (I’m far from that) to appreciate the insights given to you and mainly you get something else out of this town than the usual view from the Bund.
If you decide to try this walk then consider that it’s a 3 hours walk and that you will need some good shoes and maybe eat something before you go.
But photos might help you understand my feeling. Although I am not a landscape photographer I still think the message coming from them is clear and that the contrast is pretty powerful.
I would like to thank Context Travel for taking me on their Accelerated City tour. Please note that, as always, all opinions expressed in this review are our own and have not been influenced in any way.
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