October 19, 2013
In the wee hours of October 19, 2013, China Eastern Airlines lands on Philippine soil for the first time. The maiden flight has arrived on schedule from its hub, Shanghai. Airline officials and staff are on hand to welcome both passengers and crew with bouquets and photo ops. I will soon have the same privilege of being among the first passengers from Manila to board flight MU212 departing for Shanghai at 4:55 AM.
China Eastern Airlines is one more reason for Filipinos to experience the charm of Shanghai. The three-hour flight is smooth and made pleasant by comfy leg room and a light breakfast. We land at Pudong International Airport 20 minutes ahead of our ETA at 8:15 AM, well after the day has started. By then, the currency exchange counter conveniently located beside the baggage carousel has already opened.
The delegates of the familiarization tour of Shanghai composed mainly of travel agency bigwigs gather at the terminal lobby. Most seem to be familiar with one another. As the lone blogger in the group, I shyly fall behind the beeline to the tour bus and settle at the back.
The tour starts at the top: a jaw-dropping stop at Lujiazui, Shanghai’s most modern district, where the city’s, and some of the world’s, tallest buildings rise up like pillars supporting the sky. The 88-floor Jinmao Tower, the 101-floor Shanghai World Financial Center, and the 128-floor Shanghai Central Tower (still under construction) form a trio of supertall skyscrapers.
Gradually tapering upwards, Jinmao Tower resembles a steel-and-glass pagoda, while Shanghai World Financial Center and Shanghai Central Tower form a complementary pair, the former bringing to mind a bottle opener, what with its trapezoidal aperture near the top, and the latter a beer bottle. Other structures conjure up spacecrafts and skewered balls. Odd and otherworldly, Shanghai’s skyline takes the world’s oldest civilization to the future.
Jinmao Tower’s express elevator, traveling at more than nine meters per second, takes all of 45 seconds to whisk us from the ground to the 88th floor. Perched at more than 340 meters up, Jinmao Observatory 88 serves up a dizzying 360-degree bird’s eye view of the urban sprawl of Shanghai: a forest of bristling skyscrapers, Lego blocks of blue and red rooftops, and jutting suspension bridges over the meandering murk of Huangpu River. From here, we can see an abridged view of China’s second largest city.
Cityscape panorama aside, a truly vertigo-inducing view is inside the building. The centerpiece of the observatory deck is a glass-covered peephole of the world’s tallest atrium at 650 feet. Jinmao Tower is hollow from the 56th floor up; the upper zone is occupied by Shanghai Grand Hyatt. The topside view of the atrium is a scene straight out of Star Wars as it drops all the way to the hotel lobby like the bottomless shaft of the Death Star core.
Chinatown in China
Shanghai is a showcase of China’s progress and future; it barely shows its age. In this concrete jungle, a pocket of traditional Chinese architecture, such as Yuyuan (Yu Garden), is an oasis of local color, a respite from relentless modernity. With its classical gardens and wooden pavilions, it is the soul of Shanghai, Starbucks and McDonald’s notwithstanding.
It is also crowded, not unlike any Chinatown in any city in the world. Surrounding the historical rock gardens, halls with upturned eaves, courtyards, and willow-kissed ponds are souvenir and bargain stores, noodle and lauriat restaurants that attract droves of tourists, vendors, and everyone in between. Nowhere else in Shanghai feels more like China – crowds, commerce, cuisine – than in Yuyuan, which our guide cheekily calls a “Chinatown in China.”
We are billeted at Wyndham Bund East Shanghai Hotel, which I assume to indicate its location by the famous riverside promenade. In fact, it is located well beyond the far end of the Bund. Curiously, we enter through the backdoor. Hanging ornaments that look like giant red sea cucumbers greet us at the lobby. Oh dear, it has all the ambiance of a business hotel.
Then I enter my room. Whatever misgivings I have had fly out the window despite the fact that, in my case, it opens to a commanding view of an elevated highway and shingled rooftops. Spacious, posh, and immaculate – I am completely won over.
Shanghai Like a Diamond
Shanghai shines brightest at nightfall. Without the benefit of the sun, the city defines the skyline on its own terms, and how brilliantly it does the job. The best way to get some Shang-shine is by going on the hour-long Huangpu River Cruise plying the river that cuts through the city. While the view from the top of Jinmao Tower boasts of skyscraper tops, the river cruise sails through Shanghai’s timeline: its future (Pudong where neon lights transform gray concrete and steel into technicolor) and its past (Puxi where colonial buildings on the Bund are illuminated with mood lighting).
Lighting effects on both sides seem to be put on solely for our amazement. The energy consumption of this spectacular city-scale light show must be staggering! All mundane thoughts, however, evaporate as the lights cast prismatic reflections on the waters like a shimmering watercolor painting.
Basking in dreamy neon lights, I strike a conversation with fellow delegate, Mamerth, who reminds me of my late father. They share a common cadence in their speech and kindness in their words. Though he doesn’t know me from Adam, he pats my back, saying, “You have a good heart.” Such is the spell cast by Shang-light: everything looks nice and beautiful in its glow.
Any tour of Shanghai will not be complete without a shop-till-you-drop stop. The delegation of 28 splinters into duos and trios amid the promenading crowd on East Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, a strip lined with neon signs jutting out of humongous department stores and chains of international brands. I use the time to meet up with an old friend, Michael Cai, who graciously pounds the pavement with me scouring for souvenirs for my family before having one for the road at an alfresco cafe, reminiscing and catching up on an entire decade we have spent apart.
The night is still young, but it is time to leave. The delegation has our last supper at a restaurant near the foot of the Oriental Pearl Tower. As has been the norm the past three days, we have another banquet meal (lauriat). I feel satiated to my throat, but the servers keep stacking dishes on the lazy Susan. This Chinese-style hospitality can be over the top, but we are only too happy to indulge.
Without a moment’s delay, we board flight MU211 at 11:55 PM. An unholy hour, but it allows our departure date, as our arrival, to be a full day each. With China Eastern Airline’s ever-expanding routes within China, the rest of Asia, Europe, and North America, the flight schedule also allows transit passengers some elbow room to catch connecting flights departing from Shanghai. Boosting its position as a transfer hub, Shanghai does not require a visa for all travelers with transit time of 72 hours.
This familiarization tour will be remembered with fondness, enriched by new and old friends I have met, much like the city itself. Shanghai is endearingly familiar to me yet it never fails to reveal a new trick or two up its sleeve. With both my tummy and my heart full, I quickly settle into another restful flight, dreaming about my next trip to Shanghai.
China Eastern Airlines flies daily between Manila and Shanghai. Book flights here or call China Eastern Airlines Manila Reservation at +63 2 789 9125.