Shanghai Old Town and Yuyuan Garden
Made into a rounded walled city in 1553 to fend off Japanese pirates, the Old Town of Shanghai displays the richness of Ming and Qing architecture and the vibrancy of traditional Shanghai street life. Some call this Shanghai's "Chinatown" because of the traditional atmosphere, though the bright visages of Colonel Sanders and neon lights lining the narrow alleys add a modern touch. Considered unhealthily overcrowded, dirty and smelly by foreigners during the concession era, this was the one place that the Chinese could call their own in Shanghai.
Today the Old City is one of the few historic tourist highlights in a city that's all about modernity. One of the best ways to enter this area is from the northern gate from Renmin Road and Lishui Road. Walk south on Lishui past the new park underneath a massive gate straddling the road.
Some streets in the Old City are more understated than others, explore the sidewalk shops and lanes; quiet shopping opportunities abound. Small niches filled with clay kettles, glazed teacups and all sorts of trinkets line the walls in small stores, and antiques and antique replicas lure collectors and those stumped for souvenirs. Posters of 1930's era beauties to simple peasant art vie for your attention and cash. Parts of this area remain residential, it's easy to get lost in the maze of long tangs while walking past residents washing vegetables at outdoor sinks, toddlers playing hide and seek, and old men hunch over a game of Chinese chess.
Head down Chenxiangge Road and walk west down a tight alley to the mustard yellow walls of Chenxiangge Temple. Tourists come to take a peak into this tiny temple that was once part of the larger estate that held the Yu Garden. The dainty temple continues to serve the people of this neighborhood. Narrow streets are framed with tiny two storey abodes with doorways that lead to an apparent maze of cluttered corridors.
A block south is the intersection of Fuyou Road and the start of Old Jiaochang Road, marked with jutting traditional Chinese roof peaks and roadside vendors. Large department stores selling high-end items such as gold, pearls, massive Buddhas, silk embroidery, sandalwood fans, jade chopsticks and an assortment of teas and alcohol are housed in the buildings that circle the Yu Garden. The kitschy atmosphere of traditional architecture spiced up with modern pop music and garish lights attract tourists like moths to a flame.
Traditional Chinese medicine shops are also fairly common; you'll smell them before you see them. The fragrant aromas of curious plants and dried animals will tell your nose how to reach them. Ginseng is popular here; the tiny roots, which are eerily human shaped, can sell for thousands of RMB and are highly valued for their therapeutic properties.
To enter the main nerve of Old Town and visit the Ming era Yu Garden - also called "Yuyuan Garden", look for one of the many small entrances that lead into the central garden area. The dark narrow lanes are towered over with a mish-mash of Chinese architecture and modern styling. Commercialism is the running theme of the area; it's a modern version of an old bustling market, with the added kick of the Shanghainese throw into making money. Different snacks and trinkets are available. Tasty goodies include sweet sticky rice candies, grilled sausages and assorted fried kebabs (check out the fried swallows). Shanghai is known for its steamed meat dumplings and the most famous in Shanghai are found in the Yu Garden shopping complex. Just off the central pond, this vendor is hard to miss, just look for the long line of salivating people. The dumplings are made on the spot and steamed to juicy perfection in a few minutes.
Like a green aquatic gem ensconced in a shell, the lake in the centre of the market complex features a nine-bend bridge where locals and tourists alike all compete for the best photo opportunity. Fat fish swim lazily underneath the bridge, but come alive into a feeding frenzy whenever people throw in some food.
Across the bridge is the famed Huxinting Teahouse. This massive structure dominates the Yu Garden skyline, with massive upturned eaves; this building was originally built in 1784 and became a teahouse just before the turn of the 19th century. The restaurant inside the five sided structure is as famous as the dignitaries that have poked their chopsticks into the restaurant's rice bowls. Pictures of Jiang Zemin, Queen Elizabeth II and the Clintons mingling with the staff hang on the walls.
Across the pond from the teahouse is the Yu Garden, with the garden being built by the Pan family, powerful officials of the Ming dynasty. Built between 1559 and 1577 as part of their estate, this typical southern style garden was destroyed several times and was later restored to its former glory. One defining feature of southern gardens is the carefully created sense of space within small confines using narrow lanes, strategically placed partitions and windows that provide frames for portrait views. One of its more alluring displays is a naturally hollowed out jade boulder standing in front of a large hall, considered by experts to be exquisite viewing.
Just behind the Yu Garden is the Chenghuang Temple, the temple to Shanghai's city god. Each Chinese city used to have a city god based on the Taoist pantheon of Chinese deities and they were worshipped in these colourful temples. Loud, crowded and full of eager worshippers, these temples were rambunctious places where people would gather in front of their preferred god and pray for health and wealth, and being Shanghai, perhaps more for wealth. Originally the Jinshan Temple, it was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty in the 13th century. The temple was refurbished again in 1926 and today, still drenched in incense smoke, it continues to attract worshippers. In the front hall is a statue of a Han dynasty general while in the back hall stands Qin Yubo, Shanghai's city god.
Operas performances can be seen at the Yuyuan Stage Theater, arriving at the Yu Garden in the afternoon then spending the day shopping and eating is a perfect way to spend a lazy day. As night falls over the city, the old buildings light up and the crowds thin out allowing visitors to explore the old city in relative peace. The night vista of the upturned eaves falling from tiled roofs juxtaposed against the Herculean metallic towers of light from nearby Pudong nicely sums up Shanghai's past and present.
Other must sees in the Old City includes the colourful antiques and bird market a few blocks west of Yu Garden on Tibet South Road. The lane is full of ceramic and glass curios as well as chirping chickadees. Make sure to take in the buildings in this area as it's highly probably that they'll be redeveloped into skyscrapers within the next few years.