By Gary Brock
SHANGHAI, CHINA — It is about as far away from here as you can travel, and about as far outside of your comfort zone as you can get.
It is the largest city in the world, and acts every bit of it. Three of the world’s tallest skyscrapers tower over the city within yards of each other, a trio of modern design and futuristic architecture.
Yet, just a few miles from the spankin’ new jaw-dropping skyscrapers and malls of downtown Shanghai, lies more traditional examples of Chinese culture and history.
If you have an adventurous spirit, a week in Shanghai is a vacation you will never forget.
Last December, I had the opportunity to travel to Shanghai for eight amazing days of sightseeing, dining and shopping. In my younger days, I was a roller coaster enthusiast. I am a skyscraper enthusiast, and Shanghai has several of the world’s most amazing and newest tall buildings for me to stand in awe of … and I did just that, along with venturing to the very top of three.
But before taking such a trip, one that is far outside of most travelers’ comfort zone, you should go prepared. Some tips from someone who’s been there and may not be included in your travel guides might be helpful.
Here’s some practical advice, starting with the most important of all:
You need a visa
You must have a valid U.S. passport, of course. But if you want to travel to the People’s Republic of China, you must also have a separate visa.
To do it easily, go online and type in search, “China visa services” and check out the number of companies that will do all the work for you. The Chinese government charges $140 for the visa. Most services will add about $60, but it is well worth the cost. You fill out the form, send them the information and photo and about two weeks later or less, you get your visa.
Flight and hotel
Use a local travel agent if you have one or shop one of the many travel sites online. A flight-hotel package deal will save a lot of money. The flight will not be cheap, even for the cheap seats. It will be $800 to $900 if you are lucky. But you can book a four-star hotel downtown for a surprisingly low amount. Compare prices and locations.
WHERE TO STAY: I suggest a hotel in the newer Lujiazui Financial & Trade District. You’ll be within easy walking distance of the several malls, the Oriental Pearl radio tower and other skyscrapers/attractions, as well at great places to eat.
HINT: Keep your passport handy. You’ll need to show it repeatedly from the time you arrive at the airport here in Ohio to the time you get to the hotel in Shanghai. But once you get into your room, leave it there in a safe spot, or better still, in the hotel safe. You do NOT want to lose your passport.
What to pack
• You will get one free check-in bag with most airlines, but don’t fill it. Leave room for things to bring back. Pack for spring or summer with just a light jacket. Cleaners at the hotels are cheap and fast, so don’t pack too many clothes. And please, do not dress like you are heading to the beach at Daytona. Trust me on this. Shanghai is the fashion center of China, and people there dress that way.
• Invest in an inexpensive “Electrical Plug-In Converter/Adaptor Kit.” Most Shanghai hotels say they have both 110-volt and 220-volt outlets. Mine did, but there was just a single 110-volt outlet in the whole unit, and it was in the bathroom. So if you want to charge and run your cellphone, laptop, electric razor or anything else, invest in the converter kit.
• Invest in one of those “spin caster” carry-on suitcases. Test it out before you buy it. Put it on its wheels and give it a twist to see how easily those wheels spin in all directions. If it does, buy it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
At the airport
Security is tighter when flying oversees, so be prepared for a wait going through the TSA checkpoints. If you are flying out of Columbus, Dayton or Cincinnati, get there two hours early, not one. Hints:
1. Take a small plastic bag with you to put all your metal objects like rings, watches, cellphone, change and anything else that might set the scanner off, and that includes inhalers. Put the bag in the plastic tub they provide so the items are easier to retrieve once you are through security.
2. Take as few electronic items with you as possible. A laptop computer is fine or an iPad. But both?
3. Dress casually and comfortably during the flight. You will probably go through three security checkpoints. Wear shoes that slip on and off easily.
4. If you can, check in early online from home and print out your own boarding pass. DO IT! It is well worth the time.
Here’s the good news: On the flight, you will meet many interesting and diverse fellow passengers.
Here’s the bad news: You will have 14 to 16 hours to spend getting to know these interesting and diverse fellow passengers.
I like to think of it as an adventure. They feed you at least three times or more, there’s free first-run movies, the alcohol (when they serve you) is also free, and you can walk around the plane pretty much at will.
WARNING: Most flights heading west are booked solid. The plane may be big, but this is not for the claustrophobic.
HINT: Sleep. Have them wake you up only for the meals (you’re paying for them, after all).
Know where you are
This may seem obvious, but when traveling to any foreign country, a few minutes to acquaint yourself with the “politics” of the region is a great idea.
For instance, Shanghai is in The People’s Republic of China. It is NOT the Republic of China. That’s a different country. That’s Taiwan, a large island nation off the coast of “mainland” China. You will be very, very wise to not confuse the two. They are not on speaking terms.
While Shanghai is in a communist country, you’d never know it by being there. Even if you look close, and I did, there’s no Party evidence in sight.
In Shanghai, Mandarin Chinese is the native language. It isn’t the hardest language in the world to learn, and a few handy phrases in Mandarin might be helpful for a tourist. However, my advice is simple: Speak English. Most Shanghainese residents, especially younger ones, speak English well and will love speaking English with you.
Money and credit cards
You are going to like this part. I thought the U.S. to Chinese exchange rate was wonderful. One Yuan is about 16 cents U.S.
Credit cards: Most places in Shanghai will take major American credit cards. However, be sure to call your credit card company before you leave the United States and tell them where you are going, when you are going and tell them you authorize its use in Shanghai or whatever international city you are traveling to.
HINT: Take a backup credit card. I did everything listed above, and VISA still rejected my card in Shanghai! I even got on the phone with them, verifying who I was and where I was, and they still couldn’t unlock it for use. Luckily, I had a second card, which went through just fine all week.
As Asian big cities go, Shanghai is probably one of the safest for travelers. But that doesn’t mean you can be stupid.
Stay in groups whenever possible, especially at night. The best advice I got? Keep your wallet in your front pocket or your purse on a short strap high on the shoulder. Don’t carry a lot of money and don’t have an open wallet for long when buying something. Make sure you write down the phone numbers of any credits cards you have and keep the paper back at the hotel in case they are lost or stolen.
The people of Shanghai
My feeling is that the best reason to go to Shanghai is the people of that city. Everyone I met during the week was friendly and helpful. I always felt welcomed wherever I went. They love their city and culture and proud to tell you all about Shanghai and China’s history.
I got the impression from the Shanghainese that they genuinely like Americans. They certainly love our music, movies and celebrities.
Just remember, you are a visitor in their country and city — and it is about as different from here in Ohio as you can find anywhere on Earth. Relax, take a deep breath, expect the unexpected and just have fun.
It will be the trip of your life.
“Been there. seen that — what’s next?” is how Rural Life Today Editor Gary Brock views travel and vacations. Gary has been in the media and writing for 38 years, and says travel should be viewed as an “adventure. Going somewhere new every time is what I enjoy most.”