Sunday 3 November 2019

Shanghai travel tips

I have just spent four days in Shanghai, doing some research for my new book and a little sight-seeing.

I'm not any sort of travel expert, but here are my observations that might be helpful if you take a trip there.

In my first first few hours on the ground, I got very mixed impressions.

I caught the Maglev from the airport into the city. It's a train that floats on magnetic fields and does 300 kph! A remarkably smooth and efficient ride.

All aboard the MagLev - look mum, no wheels!
And the Nanjing East Mall is incredibly impressive. A huge car-free zone with amazing shopping, packed with people until the small hours.

Nanjing East Road
But when I got to my hotel by the river, the whole area stank.

Shanghai is built on a swamp so I was expecting some moisture and big city pollution, but there was quite a whiff of sewage hanging around.

It did improve over the following days, so perhaps they had a single incident. Or maybe I just got used to it.

But other than that, the streets are clean. There are crews everywhere making sure of it. And the public toilets are generally very well maintained.

Getting around

Use the Metro train system, it's great - cheap, clean, fast, and very easy to use. 

Cabs are common and not too expensive, but the train and a little walking work very well.

Don't drive. It's madness on the roads. The rules appear to be optional most of the time.

And beware the silent scooters! The city is crammed with electric scooters which travel anywhere - tiny footpaths or four lane highways.

Scooters everywhere - road, footpath, walking mall.

Bring cash with you. 

Chinese money, known as Yuan or Renminbi (RMB)
There are ATMs around, but not all of them can handle international cards and only select ones have an English option. Have a look at the screen before you pop the card in. And have a look at the card slot too - if it looks at all dodgy, don't use it.

I used a Visa card successfully at a few places, especially my hotel and big corporate stores. But some places insisted on charging extra for the card and so cash was usually a better option.


I took my son to a sideshow recently. He was keen to spend his money on a game where you scooped plastic ducks from a tank to get lucky numbers.

I told him that if there was no price displayed for the game, it was likely a rip-off. Sure enough, it turned out you had to spend big money to win the big prizes. His little bit of pocket money guaranteed that he would get a shit prize. So why even play?

So it is at all of the tourist markets in Shanghai. No prices are displayed, so when you ask how much something is, they estimate how much the market will bear and then double it, just in case you're a fool.

Personally, I hate haggling. I'm really not good at it. So when they offered me a price I didn't like, I didn't counter-offer, I'd just say no thanks and leave.

It turns out that's a good way to haggle. As I walked, the price would drop and drop until it reached a number I liked or I was gone.

That said, I'm still pretty sure I got ripped off more than once. If you're a tech geek like me, be very careful - if you buy electronics from a small stall, it's just about guaranteed to be junk.

You want massage?

Actually I DO want massage. This is a basic truth of my entire life.

But if someone approaches you in the streets of Shanghai to offer you massage or "very nice lady", say no very firmly and keep on walking.

It's a well known scam. They take you somewhere away from other people - a tea house, a private room - and then bill you an astronomical amount for it. That pot of tea was 20,000 Yuan! And if you don't want to pay, several burly Chinese guys will make sure you do.

I found I had to say no three times to just about every scammer who approached me, before they gave up and went away.

That said, there are plenty of real massage places around. I had the best foot massage of my life for less than 200 Yuan.

But choose your parlour carefully. If there are only young ladies in full make-up and short-shorts present, they are likely to offer you a happy ending without the massage.

Goodbye Google

There's no Google in China. You'll have to Bing instead. 

Also no Google translate, Google Drive, or Google Maps.

I used the Apple Maps app pretty successfully getting around the place.

Most western social media is also offline. So no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. The Great Firewall says no.

It's technically possible for a VPN to get around this, but difficult in practice to actually make it work, particularly on a mobile phone.

I bought a Chinese SIM with calls and data on it as I arrived at the airport. If I'd waited and looked around a bit, I could have secured a much better deal. You can buy SIMs from vending machines, so they are very common and there are plenty of deals around.

Internet is everywhere, but not always fast or reliable. Even my hotel's connection fell over pretty frequently. 

Keep moving forward

The city is designed for large amounts of people. All of the public spaces are on a huge scale, with clear signage telling you where to go.

When you're in a moving crowd, go for it. If you don't take your place at the escalator or shop queue, others will push ahead of you. It's not personal, it's just the way it is.

Nine Zig-Zag Bridge
And watch the oncoming foot traffic. In Australia we tend to walk on the left. In China, people go anywhere there's a space and just make it work. Sometimes those people are on electric scooters and will expect you to get out of the way.


Service in China is generally brisk. You're not likely to come back and there's a billion Chinese people to serve after you're gone, so why waste the effort on smiling?

That said, they will make every effort to do business with you. If they don't speak English, they'll do their best to communicate. Every shopkeeper I encountered had a big calculator so they could clearly show their prices on the screen.

Me with Xu Jin, an awesome local tour guide
And outside of business, I found individual Chinese folks to be warm and helpful. Even with my complete lack of Mandarin, I never failed to get directions or advice from members of the public.

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