Having decided to forego the Traditional Chinese Tea Scam, we instead walked through the Old City of Shanghai.1 It’s the original urban core of Shanghai dating back to the 12th century. It was once defined by defensive walls like so many other old world cities, but they’ve been mostly replaced by wide, modern avenues that circle Old City Shanghai.
The real charm of the Old City is the maze of narrow, winding, ancient streets. On these streets, (alleys really) people live or have their shops and restaurants in a living diorama of former life in Shanghai. Now, the very old is mixed with the new.
We ventured into one of these alleys. Old men, sitting under rusted stairs, played mahjong. We had to duck under laundry drying on lines. The alleys were so narrow and congested that we were practically stepping inside homes. Doors were open for air and we were sometimes face to face with the residents. We were unsure if shop owners or homeowners were offering something to us. Atypically, we were embarrassed by the closeness of the interaction and had no response so we turned around and went back to the bigger road.
We were hungry, though, so we continued checking the side streets. In one alley, the sour smell of tofu was so strong it turned us back. In another, a row of restaurants seemed promising. Out front, each restaurant displayed its array of ingredients from which customers could choose.
Even though Deena and I both cook, to be quite honest, we didn’t recognize 90% of the offerings! One looked like an entire bird sans feathers in a soup bowl; another, a small animal, but of what species we couldn’t say. Roadkill perhaps? Deena thought it would be great to take pictures of these foods and ask our readers to identify them. We would have, except we didn’t know the correct answers!
Finally, we found a place that served the famous Shanghai xiaolongbao. These are dumplings with an aromatic pork filling and a mouthful of hot savory broth on the inside. We had to wonder how there was liquid soup inside a hand-wrapped dumpling. It’s quite the trick.2
The other major attractions of Old City Shanghai are the City God Temple and YuYuan (Garden of Happiness) with its tea house in the middle of a pond. Truly, we found the tea house on the pond to be very romantic, but isn’t $30 for a cup of tea just another scam? We didn’t have tea there either.
However, we did visit Yu Garden, first created in the 16th century. It’s genuinely difficult to appreciate the extent of this place at first glance. On entry, we thought it was just a “nice garden”. As we moved through door, or path, or stone cave, one after another, each revealed yet another part of the garden. This discovery process goes on for quite some. The gardens actually cover 5 acres and are divided in such a way that one can keep discovering new treasures to enjoy, and within which to meditate.