How to take full advantage of Shanghai’s 24 to 144-hour tourist visa.
It’s a bittersweet moment as I head home from my last trip of 2017; a 2-week trip to visit friends, attend a wedding and confirm the first few steps of my next big project in India, with a 3-day stop in Shanghai, China. Bittersweet for a number of reasons: 1) 2017 went way to quickly, 2) this was the last of many trips taken this year with my wonderful mom by my side, whom I do not get to spend much quality time with, and 3) the start of a new chapter (again) as I prepare to move back to India and work for both my new project (to be announced soon!), and to lead Operation Groundswell’s Religion and Gender programs for summer 2018! Yes, there are still travel plans for the start of the new year, and a few weekend getaways, but as I write this on my 14-hour flight home from Shanghai to Toronto, I can feel the change in the air, and smell the noodle dish being prepared around the corner by China Easterns’ flight attendants. Wish I could say the food is as good as the smell.
I was a little nervous about visiting China. With no knowledge of any Mandarin (I literally learned ni hao, meaning hello, 2-days into the visit…), a vegetarian diet, lactose intolerance, and not enough warm clothes for the near zero degree weather conditions, I couldn’t help but think I was going to starve and come home with a cold. I can now confirm that I was fed, mostly noodles and cookies, and that the cold did take over my immune system but quickly faded after a good night’s sleep. As I look back on the trip, I think Shanghai might have been my favourite part (then again, India is always exciting and wonderful for me even after living there). From walking The Bund, to experiencing ERA at Shanghai Circus World, to taking the metro around the metropolis, every moment was a thrill and a hilarious adventure with English and a VPN connector to access Google Translator. I highly recommend the stopover if accessible, which is why I decided to put this "go to" post together, listing important arrival and travel tips while in destination, as well as my favourite highlights for those visiting on a 24 to 144-hour visa.
Arrival & Tips
Arriving in Shanghai can be a little confusing. Unless you are staying longer than 6-days (more than 144 hours), you will need to obtain a visa before departure. Your immigration line will be the "FOREIGNER" line. If you are transferring to your next flight, you will need to line up in the “TRANSIT” line. If you are staying anywhere between 24 – 144 hours, or have an overnight stay with a connection in the morning, you will also need to line up in the “TRANSIT” line. This is the same line as the visa on arrival line but is poorly labeled. Avoid standing in this line if you are just transiting to your next flight, see the "E-CHANNEL" or "TRANSIT" line on the left hand side when you walk into immigration. There are no staff informing you of what line you should be in, so if you arrive and are confused, be sure to ask the first staff member you see (if you see one). I watched way too many tired and hangry travelers wait in the wrong line for up to 40 minutes just to be turned away and directed to another 40-minute line. Once you’ve discovered your immigration line, ensure you have a yellow immigration slip if you are staying 24 hours or less. If you are staying more than 24 hours, make sure to grab a yellow AND blue visa form. Again, no one will tell you to fill out anything. You have to be proactive and ensure you have all the proper documentation to pass immigration. It’s entirely possible that you will arrive and there will be no forms available. Do not hesitate to walk to the front of the line and ask for one. Be bold! I grabbed a bunch to stock the forms counter for future travelers as there is nothing worse than being exhausted, confused and having no forms to immigrate. Pay it forward when you grab your visa forms and stock the counter. You will get a good kick out of the videos playing on the few screens at immigration about how fantastic and friendly the customer service is from Chinese immigration officers. Please contact me if you count a single smile from any officer during your immigration experience.
Tip number one: download a VPN connector. China blocks popular sites such as Google, which is basically the North American bible, and Facebook. It also blocks communication apps such as WhatsApp, so be sure to download before heading east. VPN Express is a great option from any app store and doesn’t necessarily slow down the connection. Connect to computers in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York to access any app and any site.
Tip number two: if you are flying China Eastern or Shanghai Airlines, pack some snacks. Especially if you are a vegetarian or vegan. I ordered my meal online, as a good vegetarian should, but was only offered “chicken or fish” on all four flight segments. If you are a vegan, you will starve so add snack shopping to your pre-departure TO DO list. They only supply as many vegetarian meals as ordered, or they don’t stalk them at all.
Unless you speak Mandarin, the bus is not an option, but the metro is! The Shanghai metro system is very simple to use and very inexpensive. All ticket machines have an English language option and all signage has a Mandarin and English translation. You can even take the Metro from Shanghai Pudong airport to the city but allow yourself a good hour or two to get into Central Shanghai.
My mother is no longer a backpacker at age 51, therefore I have a tough time convincing her on hostels (which I've done to her numerous times over the last few years). Our accommodation in Shanghai was right in the heart of the city at New Harbour Service Apartments; one-, two- and three- bedroom apartment rentals with a kitchen and living room. A restaurant, bar, gym and laundry services are also available onsite. New Harbour is great for those on a budget, as we were able to make our own breakfast, coffee and snacks whenever we wanted a quick fix. Our room cost us around $50 per person per night for a one-bedroom, and was extremely well located; People’s Square, The Bund, Xintandi and Dashijie metro station are all within walking distance.
This cute little coffee and health food chain is great for green lunches, snacks and caffeine needs. You’ll find them in most high traffic areas. Their detox smoothies and fresh juices are delicious.
Pure & Whole
Located inside the Shanghai Business Centre, Pure & Whole serves up rad vegetarian dishes including bowls, pastas, wraps and burgers. There are a few locations so check the website to see which is closest to your hotel or the areas you’ll be visiting.
Located on the 6th floor at 3 on the Bund, this delicious Italian eatery overlooks the Shanghai skyline and is absolutely magnificent to look out onto after 5pm when the sun has set, and the skyline is lit up in beautiful blues, pinks and greens. Mercado makes excellent pizzas and tiramisu. Mom mentioned it being one of the best she’s ever had! Wine is extremely pricey, starting at 125 RMB per glass and around 450 RMB for a bottle, but the food is economical starting around 88 RMB for a pizza or pasta dish.
For on the go bites, Old Town's numerous food stalls and dumpling houses are sure to please!
Although Old Town was actually build in the late 1900s, intentionally built to look old, this tourist hub is great for photos and shopping for fun souvenirs, Chinese inspired fashion, and jackets if you are Jazzmine and didn’t bring one. Be sure to use a currency converter every time you buy something. It’s really easy to spend anywhere between 300 and 1000 RMB on a pair of shoes or jacket thinking it’s super cheap in dollars (it ain’t!).
This trendy part of Shanghai is great for foodies and luxury shoppers. From Lululemon to Michelle Wu, the shopping isn’t exactly local, but the restaurants and cafes are delicious and unique with plenty of outdoor seating, even in winter. Don’t worry, heating lamps are provided and man do they blast the heat!
This super cool museum, located in the center of People’s Square, is an awesome discovery for those intrigued by Chinese arts, culture, and heritage. My favourite exhibition: Chinese calligraphy! The museum spans out across four floors with permanent and rotating exhibitions. And the best part: it’s free! Oddly enough the Chinese government has found a way to capitalize on religious spaces, charging for entrance into temples and churches, but not the city museum.
This green paradise, featuring an abundance of coy fish and small shelters used as merchant offices in the late 1770s, is a 5-acre garden located in Central Shanghai. Its name, meaning Peace Garden, is oh so fitting, as it hosts a surprisingly calm aura (except for the chatter of endless tourists), as it sits hidden in the centre of Old Town. Mom and I actually passed it three times on of our first day in the city before realizing where it was located. Give yourself a good hour to really enjoy the scenery. Bring a snack and sit alongside the waterways; it really is a gorgeous space.
The Bund is a 1.6 kilometre walkway parallel to the Huangpu River. It's got the best of the Shanghai skyline, lined with futuristic and geometric buildings (often clouded by pollution). The Bund has been known as the Wall Street of the East and is packed with men in business suits and cute couples taking selfies along the waters edge. Here you’ll find coffee shops, souvenir shops, and high end luxury stores such as Chanel. My advice: go for the view, stay for the sunset. Unfortunately smog makes for a gorgeous sunset.
Note: Be sure to get there before 9pm, the Shanghai Tower and Oriental Pearl TV Tower turn off their lights quite early (which I’m a huge fan of!), but can make for a pretty bland skyline when gloomed with visible smog.
Jade Buddha Temple
The infamous Jade Buddha Temple is lovely both inside and out. Painted a beautiful calming yellow, with big and beautiful red doors, the temple shows off such intricate beauty, from its detailed shrines to the gorgeous and powerful influence of its godly structures. I definitely wouldn’t label it as a peaceful place to pray. With a constant stream of tourists coming through, stepping over faithful devotees, it was a little embarrassing that it was normal to step over kneeling Buddhists as groups of foreigners and locals alike captured photos of the gorgeous house of worship.
There are a few rooms of worship within the temple. My favourite: the chamber of the Four Heavenly Kings, where smiling Buddha sits in the middle of the room looking down on you, causing a chain reaction of smiling faces among viewers. The actual Jade Buddhas are located near the end of the temple complex. And yes, I said Buddhas! There are two Jade Buddhas in the Jade Buddha Temple: sitting Buddha and reclining Buddha. Reclining Buddha is a gorgeous figure, laying at around 3 feet long, while the sitting Buddha gives off a more majestic atmosphere, at over 6 feet tall and over 3 tonnes. Sitting Buddha is enclosure and far enough from observers so that the glass can never be touched, whereas reclining Buddha, although still enclosed, can be appreciated at arms length. Photos are not allowed in sitting Buddha's chamber but people still take them (damn tourists!). The chambers are all quite small, so you have to either scan the room quickly or be trampled by tourists. My favourite part was definitely near the end as we stood in the courtyard outside of sitting Buddha's chamber, watching as dozens of worshipers lit bunches of incense, enriching the yard with the smell of Jasmine. As monks sang chants next to burning cauldrons of incense and paper, my mind cleared and I forgot how much the smell of Jasmine irritates me (ironic, huh?).
I’ve always thought it to be important for silk buyers to know the silk making process. At Tian Hou-Silk, enjoy a workshop learning the details of the entire silk making process, from caring of the silk worm eggs, to boiling of the cocoon to extract the silk fiber. Fun fact: silk worms only live for about 60 days. They are spun into silk on the 35th day of their life after they have cocooned, if not being used for mating purposes. I asked about their attempts of looking into ethical silk production, where they don’t kill the silk worms, but they shrugged me off. It’s unfortunate that most silk producers don’t take into account the cruelty of boiling something alive to obtain a luxury product we could live without.
Shanghai Circus World
As an amateur aerialist, I’m always down for a circus no matter where I go, and Shanghai Circus World’s ERA show is hands down the best circus I’ve ever seen (and yes, I’ve seen Cirque de Soliel). From extreme contortion, to balancing acts, to aerial arts including silks, trapeze and trampoline, and pure insanity on motorbikes and bicycles, I don’t think I actually took a breath until intermission. The show was absolutely fantastic. Mom and I were both at the edge of our seats, in shock and at times trembling as we watched acts that just simply seemed impossible. I highly recommend a visit, especially while the ERA show is on. Even the cheapest tickets (ours of course), are great seats and start somewhere around 200 RMB a person.
Other fun recommendations if you have enough time on your visit include checking out Confucius Temple, Longhua Temple and Pagoda, and Qibao, a cute little Chinese village bringing you the best flavours of old China.
I always take advantage of any possible stopover, and although immigration was a nuisance, you have to remember that seeing beautiful places can't always be easy. Travel always has its little awkward bits and bites, but it only makes the adventure more worth it.