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China Places I've been to so far

The Old City of Shanghai: My Walk through Chinese History into the Garden of Happiness

China Shanghai Old City Yuyuan Garden Indie Traveller
The Old City in Shanghai, with Pudong’s skyscrapers and the Oriental Pearl Tower looming into view far behind.

In July 2008, after a month of backpacking through various towns, cities, and countryside of China, after hiking, climbing mountains, cycling and more, I reached the great city of Shanghai (上海). All through my journey the travellers I met had been wondering why I planned to stay 4-5 days in this city. “It’s just a big Chinese city” they said, “one like so many others, all alike.” But a day of explorations convinced me I was right to book 4 nights because Shanghai turned out to be just great! And one of the places I visited that reaffirmed this was the Shànghăi Gùchéng (上海古城), or the Old City of Shanghai.

China Shanghai Traffic Indie Traveller
Scooter and motorcycle traffic in Shanghai.

My hostel was located near the Bund, the historical waterfront area on the Huángpǔ River in central Shanghai. I woke up reasonably early (for me) and after breakfast headed south on foot. The streets of Shanghai were packed with scooters zooming past here and there. Some of those little machines carried some crazy loads! It can be quite a sight sometimes. Anyhow, my hostel lay just in the middle between Nanjing Road East station and the Old City, which is a distance of a bit more than 1km. That meant that on foot I reached my destination in no time.

China Shanghai Old City Indie Traveller
The pedestrianised streets of Shanghai’s Old City.

The Old City is nothing like I imagined – I hadn’t looked up any pictures of the place before going there. So, I was expecting to find a cluster of some old Chinese village houses surrounded with modern buildings. I was so wrong! Once I reached Renmin Lu (Renmin Road), which runs along where the northern city wall used to be, I saw traditionally looking houses as expected, yet those were a few stories high! What I saw used to be no village; the Old City’s architecture showed me that indeed it must have been a great and rich city for a very long time. Excited by what I saw I quickly crossed Renmin Road and delved into the streets of the area ahead.

China Shanghai Old City Indie Traveller
The completely revamped streets of the Old City.

Entering the Old City is a bit like entering a different world. One moment you’re in a big modern Western city, and next you’re getting lost navigating through narrow alleyways in some surreal fairy-tale like Asian town. The streets are packed with people who browse through various goods on sale here. There are plenty of small restaurants here, little souvenir shops, clothes shops, etc; capitalist enterprise thriving in a communist country!

China Shanghai Old City Indie Traveller
Shanghai’s Old City.

Although all the buildings here are quite old, they have been completely revamped. Nothing’s falling apart! The streets area reasonably clean, here and there some people are resting in the shade, some are going about their daily routine and others are enjoying their day sipping some cold drink. The Old City is a very lively area, perfect for a casual walk. The pleasant hustle and bustle of the pedestrianised streets and the traditional Chinese architecture visible all around makes it easy to forget that you’re in Shanghai, the 8th largest city in the world. Instead, it’s easier to imagine you’re in some busy town somewhere in China. The only telltale signs of modernity are the digital cameras and mobile phones that you see people use everywhere around you.

Tourists in Chénghuáng Miào near the entrance to the Yù Yuán Garden.

After I’d had a little look at various shops in the area and a nice walk along the various lanes of the Old City, I headed for one of it’s attractions: the Yù Yuán (豫园), the Garden of Happiness. The garden is located in the busiest area of the Old City called Chénghuáng Miào (上海城隍庙) that takes its name after a nearby temple. As expected, the place was packed with tourists, mostly Chinese, taking snaps of one another.

China Shanghai Old City Chénghuáng Miào Yuyuan Garden The Indie Traveller Tourists
Chénghuáng Miào.

Chénghuáng Miào is a really pretty area with traditional buildings situated around a nice pool teaming with goldfish. It does get quite crowded though.

Goldfish in Chénghuáng Miào.

In Chinese culture the fish represents wealth and prosperity. It is because the Chinese word yú (魚), which stands for fish, when pronounced with a different tone makes yù (裕) which stands for plentiful.

Chénghuáng Miào.

Once I took my photographs, enjoyed a little stroll around the pretty pool, fed some fish, and smiled back at some Chinese tourists who were ever so excited to see a real Westerner in real life, I went to the entrance of the Yù Yuán.

Inside the Yù Yuán Garden.

The Yù Yuán Garden was created in the sixteenth century by an Imperial Court official and has been well looked after since. Thus, nowadays it can easily be the highlight of anyone’s visit to Shanghai. It’s a really beautiful tranquil place, much quieter and relaxed than the area just outside the garden walls.

Rockeries – a common design feature of Yù Yuán.

Rockeries constitute a common feature of Yù Yuán’s design. So do numerous walkways, classical Chinese pavilions, well tended trees, bushes and other vegetation as well as pools filled with some more goldfish.

Traditional interior.

Some of the buildings in the garden are open and everybody can have a little look at what traditional Chinese interior decoration is like.

Traditional style window.

The interiors are rich in ornaments, with beautiful traditional Chinese style windows that overlook the beautiful garden.

Ornamental wall of the Yù Yuán.

Even the garden walls are quite a sight. They draw the visitor’s attention with dragons perched right on top whose undulating tails run all along the wall.

A walkway inside the Yù Yuán.

Walkways walkways walkways… cutting across pools filled with goldfish. Everything’s very well arranged and picturesque. We could just as well be back in the sixteenth century. Nothing around reveals that it’s indeed the twenty first.

Rockeries and another walkway of the Yù Yuán. And yet some more goldfish!
The Yù Yuán Garden.
Traditional Chinese style curved roof in the Yù Yuán Garden.

This here is only one of many fantastic examples of the traditional Chinese style up-turned curved roof. Curved not only to provide a better protection against rain but supposedly also against evil spirits. Plus there’s the lovely aesthetic factor.

The Yù Yuán Garden.
Shíshī, or the Imperial Guardian Lion in the Yù Yuán Garden.

When leaving the Yù Yuán you will come across the moss-covered shíshī (石獅), or the Imperial Guardian Lion. They usually go in pairs, one male and one female. In the photo above you can see the male shíshī with his right paw fixed upon the world. The Chinese Guardian Lions started their career in the Chinese culture about 2,000 years ago when they began to be used as both decorative and protective features at entrances to tombs, palaces, temples, or homes of wealthy officials. Despite this glorious origin, nowadays they also adorn the fronts of shops, restaurants and even supermarkets, and are a common sight in any Chinatown you visit.

Souvenir stall in Chénghuáng Miào.

Once out I found myself again in Chénghuáng Miào, the busy commercial district of the Old City of Shanghai. As it was the time for me to leave the Old City, I quickly went around some of the shops in the area in search of some cheap souvenirs. The choice is huge! From fridge magnets to caps, helmets and t-shirts.

Terracotta warriors replicas at a souvenir stall in Chénghuáng Miào.

Some might be interested in small scale replicas of the famous terracotta warriors of Xi’an or…

Souvenir stall in Chénghuáng Miào.

… in some traditional Chinese masks carved out of wood.

Souvenir stalls in Chénghuáng Miào.

A thing to remember! This is China, and it’s a very touristy area. So haggle haggle haggle! True, when you convert the renminbi price into pounds, dollars, euros, or whatever currency you use back home, the prices are not that high. But if you’re backpacking across the continent on a budget, every little penny counts sometimes. So, if you’re able to bring the price down by 50%, why not try doing so and saving some cash for a bigger lunch later?

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