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Shanghai dreams

It is easy to meet a small mind with a large head. But it is mighty rare to see a very large head — make that a skull, replete with long, menacing horns — cooking inside a large pot at a street-side food stall. As I gape in jaw-dropping astonishment, a clutch of young, white-uniformed, hatted Chinese chefs watch me with amusement. My eyes stray to the smoking grill alongside. On it are skewered stacks of strange-looking creatures of an orange hue, oil glistening from their grilled quarters. Bat, bird or invertebrate beast, I know not. I enquire. A moment’s silence. Then a burst of unintelligible gibberish follows. Retry. Fail. Abort…

It’s a sunless Shanghai noon. I’m strolling the inner market square at Chenghuang Miao (City God Temple) and Yu Yuan Garden. The 500-year-old garden sounds exotic and intricate in my guidebook with its pavilions, ponds, rockeries and cloisters. But the contrived banks of artificial roses stuck in thermocol flowerbeds at the entry put me off.

I stray into what appears to be a self-service Chinese food court. With an assembly-line maze of pre-plated crabs, arrays of platters piled high with fat black snails, to the more palatable chicken and braised beef and boiled and broiled forms of vegetable matter, the place turns out to be fascinating, yet formidable. The flavours? Indistinct to subtle, unfamiliar and undiscerning. Maybe I’ve picked the wrong dishes. There are no signs in English. And no one understands or speaks the language here.

The quaint Yu Yuan market street outside is a penny-pinching tourists delight. Varieties of tea, fake iPads, intricate wood carvings, samurai swords… A smattering of English words, a surfeit of toothy smiles through ferocious haggling, grunts and other onomatopoeia see you through every deal. Browsing through the Chinese equivalent of dollar store here I find magnets, mirrors, umbrellas, flashlights, back scratchers, scarves, walking sticks, curios, cutlery, crockery… everything for 2RM (Rs 30).

I come to a big square at the end of the market. In the centre stands a shiny black Rolls Royce on display. But more imposing than the car are the number of fluffy poodles and pretty Pekinese with bow-ties and wool booties, strutting around, their proud mistresses in tow. Aah, you’ll also spot these canines squatting squeamishly on flouncy cushions inside shops, by the way.

Some place else, in the dying sunlight, I look up and find the wooden pagoda roof architecture of old Shanghai silhouetted arrestingly against the towering glassy-blue skyscraper backdrop.

The next day, I find myself in Shanghai’s world famous skyrise district, the Central Pudong New Area. And standing tall among this sea of soaring buildings are its trophy turrets: The distinguished Oriental Pearl TV and Radio Tower. And the stunning 101-storey, 492m high Shanghai World Financial Center (SFWC). For spectacular views of city, the SWFC Observatory up top is where you must go.

Another morning and I’m across the serpentine Huangpu River, scanning the expanse of the Bund. It’s made up on an assortment of 26 beautiful old buildings of classical architectural styles — Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque and Renaissance. A mesmerising sight, by morning, noon… or night during a boat cruise down the river. This historic waterfront stretch has epitomised Shanghai for centuries.

At a tourist information centre, I enquire about city sightseeing tours. Oddly, both the lovely lasses manning the place know no English. They proffer brochures and I glean through sign language that I should return in an hour to meet the English-speaking guide.

The taxis in Shanghai are all upholstered in spotless white, metered and never overcharge. Yet, unlike Hong Kong or Macau, it is rare, if not impossible to meet a Chinese cabbie who understands English. So, you must either have the hotel concierge (the best translators here) for help, or carry a map that has both English and Mandarin notations and point out your destination to the driver.

Not very far from the madding crowds of this model Sino city, I’m sauntering down a typical blue collar residential suburb near Li Yang Road one morning. Beer crates spill onto the sidewalk, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with brinjals and beans at the street vegetable sellers. A utilities man in a blue uniform with broad yellow reflective stripes is sweeping the streets with a palm branch. The streets are winding, not quite in the pink of health. But clean. And clear of parked vehicles.

Most suburban roads are bordered by broad sidewalks, wide enough to accommodate bikes, cars, and pavements for four people to walk abreast. Bikes and mopeds with giant fur gloves pre-attached to the handle bars stand around. And then I spot the prize pooches again — with coiffed hair and purple ribbons. Even in these mofussil neighbourhoods! Leashless, groomed to perfection, patiently walking behind their (usually) superannuated owners. No wandering mendicants with wailing violins or quivering voices. No stray dogs. No wandering cows. Shanghaied, skewed, stir-fried, or sautéed somewhere? Maybe…

Ready reckoner

Getting there: Most major airlines operate flights to Shanghai. This includes Kingfisher, Air India, China Eastern, Cathay Pacific, Thai, Malaysia, Singapore and Jet.

Staying there: Shanghai offers a vast range of hotels — from budget to the super luxury. Choose an establishment close to a metro station if not a central location like People’s Square.

WHEN IN SHANGHAI...

View the breathtaking Shanghai skyline from atop SFWC, the third highest building in the world.

Take a boat cruise down the Huangpu River to watch the city lights.

Savour assorted Chinese teas and learn the brewing process at a quaint teashop in Yu Yuan Market.

Visit the South Bund Fabric Market at Lujiabang Road for cashmere, silks and overnight bespoke tailoring.

Wander the stunning Liu Lingering Gardens of Suzhou.

Explore Xintiandi, a pedestrian evening shopping, bar and restaurant area amidst classic Shikumen buildings.

Don’t brush past Tian-zi-fang Street if art and sculpture are your passion.

Catch a hop-on-hop-off tour from People’s Square.

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