Thursday, September 13, 2018

Tips for Traveling to Shanghai, China

It's always tricky to travel to a foreign city, especially one that not many people you know go to, like Shanghai. It's hard to know what to expect. Do the locals speak English? Should you bring the local currency? What should you pack? Here's what we learned from our recent trip to China.

Do the locals speak English?
While the locals can be incredibly curious about foreigners, even striking up a conversation with you if you appear to be from somewhere else, not everyone speaks English well. Then again, many others do, so you may just have to approach a few different people to ask your questions.

Ironically, cab drivers seem to know the least English. Most hotels, however, will provide you with a printout or card that contains directions in Chinese if you ask. Be sure to also obtain directions back to the hotel before you leave. It'll probably help to learn a few basic words in Mandarin before you go on your trip; here's a short list of phrases that'll come in handy.

By the way, personal space is practically non-existent in China. There are so many people in the country that perhaps it’s not reasonable to expect it. If you’re in a crowded space, there will be people bumping into you or standing right up against you all the time. As I mentioned, people may approach you to ask you where you're from. It may seem rude or offensive at first, but this is simply a part of the culture and it’s really up to you to adapt!

What kind of clothing should I pack?
The temperature in Shanghai ranges from 47 degrees Fahrenheit in January to 90 degrees in July (with added humidity), so you should pack according to the season. Bring an umbrella during the warmer months, which you can use when it rains, but also to beat the heat; the locals regularly use them as parasols when it's sunny.

I thought the air quality in Shanghai would be terrible, and briefly considered buying face masks to bring on the trip. To our surprise when we arrived, though, it seemed no different from the air back at home, and the sky was a bright, clear blue on our first day. (It got cloudier and rainier as the week progressed.) I think we got lucky during our visit, though, and some days do bring more smog and air pollution. I'd wait on purchasing any face masks, just in case they're not necessary.

Will I have access to the internet while in Shanghai?
Many of the browsers and internet services that we use every day are censored in China, completely blocked off by the "Great Firewall." This includes services like Google (Gmail, Maps, Search) and Facebook. So no, don't count on having internet, even though some sites (like Yahoo) do work.

There's a way to get around this, and that's to download a VPN for a nominal fee before you arrive in China (you won't be able to download it after you're there). Here's more on what VPN is exactly. There are many VPN providers, and I used ExpressVPN during my trip. It worked about 60 percent of the time.

Should I be tipping?
Tipping is not expected for cab drivers and at restaurants, and can even lead to some awkward interactions because the locals won't know why you're handing them money. So don't worry about not doing it. Also, never bus your own table at a restaurant, even at self-serve places.

Do I need to bring the local currency? 
Yes, bring lots of Chinese cash, or yuan, with you. About half the places we visited wouldn’t take foreign credit cards. Most Chinese establishments, even the street stalls and cabs, take payment in the form of a local app that scans the shop’s QR code, but unfortunately this option isn't available to the casual tourist, so cash will be your best friend. By the way, the exchange rate is about 1 RMB = 0.15 USD, so divide all the prices you see by 6, and you'll get the rough equivalent in dollars.

Haggling is a sport in China, and it’s one that I never got good at. My only advice is to always ask for the price of an item before agreeing to buy it, and if it sounds unreasonable, don’t be afraid to walk away. You’ll see the price drop dramatically (like up to 75 percent) when you do.

I also never quite got the hang of pricing in China. Some things were extremely inexpensive — an hour-long cab ride is about $15, and an hour-long massage at one of the ubiquitous parlors is about $30. Other things were downright exorbitant — a scoop of Häagen Daaz ice cream in a mall is $6, and a bottle of soda at the top of the Great Wall is almost $8. Just never assume you know the price of something until the seller confirms it for you, and always ask before you buy!

What's the deal with squat toilets?!
Using a public restroom can be a bit of an adventure. Most places in Shanghai offer Western-style toilets, but you may encounter squat toilets here and there. Here’s how to use one. Bring a pack of tissues everywhere you go, as some bathrooms won’t provide them.

How should I get around?
Since we were traveling with young children, we mostly took cabs everywhere, although I hear that the subway system is very easy to use. Here's a pretty clear guide on how to tackle the metro.

Cabs are definitely not a bad way to go, though, as they are extremely inexpensive, unless you're traveling from one side of the Bund to the other. The longest distance we traveled in a cab (without crossing the Bund) was one hour, and that only cost $15 total.

We went on a couple of local tours, which is a great way to get around, as you'll have someone guiding you and explaining what you're seeing and doing. Some tours provide transportation, like the one we took to the water town of Zhujiajiao, while others simply take you around the city on foot, like the delicious street food breakfast tour we went on with Unfood Tour. You can read more about our experiences here.

What is the food like? 
The city offers a hodgepodge of chain restaurants (where you can expect to pay Western prices) and mom-and-pop eateries that will sell you freshly made bowls of rice or noodles for next to nothing. We ate at both types of places. More on our favorites here. Interestingly, we were told by several people to sample the KFC in Shanghai, as it's supposed to offer a very different menu and is beloved by locals, but unfortunately we never got a chance to try it.

Shanghai is where soup dumplings were invented, so you'll have to have a taste while you're visiting. Better yet, go on a food tour with a local, who'll teach you how to enjoy them properly and expose you to a few different preparations. You can even make your own on some tours.

One thing to mention is that the tap water in China is not safe for Americans to drink, and I would avoid salads as well. Always carry around bottled water, as you shouldn't drink the tap water at restaurants, or be prepared to consume a lot of soft drinks, which is what we ended up doing for lack of better options.

What should I do and see while in Shanghai?
Three not-to-be missed activities in Shanghai are strolling through Yu Yuan garden and bazaar, a boat ride on the Bund, and a walk through the French Concession. You can read more about our experiences here.

I also highly recommend getting a massage while in Shanghai. There are massage parlors everywhere, and your hotel can probably recommend one that's near you. Massages in Shanghai cost next to nothing ($30 for an hour, no tip required) and are a real treat.

You may also like:
Shanghai, China, with Kids: What to Do, Where to Eat and What's Nearby
How to Apply for Chinese Visas for Your Family