Solo Venture to Shanghai, Hangzhou, & Suzhou

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*Please disregard the tour-ey stuff at the top of the above picture. I was in no way affiliated with such shenanigans. I clearly stole this from the interwebs to show where in the world I went :) Preface: Tips

  • While I myself would rather go adventuring with a friend, don’t let a lack of available travel buddies keep you from going anywhere. This entire holiday was a solo venture.
  • Make use of your connections, however loose. Consider it a chance to make it stronger! I stayed with an acquaintance living in Shanghai, and I’m really glad I did.
  • Before going ANYWHERE make sure you’ve got access to a good map. A good offline one. I downloaded Ulmon, a free offline map for Shanghai. Used it constantly.
  • I got a ticket on the Big Bus hop-on hop-off tour thing. I’m glad I did mainly because this caused me to download the app, which has all the major and some less major sights listed with facts, hours of operation, and admittance fees. In the future, I will look to utilize such apps without actually using the service. I didn’t really need it. Metro and cabs were more convenient and cheaper.
  • Avoid traveling during the national holidays in China if you can. My Hangzhou guide told me paid vacation is not really a thing, so everyone in the most populous country in the world has to travel at the same time. Largely to the same places. Yikes. However, if you must might as well EMBRACE it.

Day 1: Shanghai

I walked to People’s Square because that’s where 2 of the Big Bus routes left from. The surrounding area also has oodles of attractions. After a longish walk I spent some time relaxing here and trying to figure out how this Big Bus thing worked. Just so you know, the pick-up point is NOT at the regular public station. It’s in conjunction with the other sight-seeing bus associated with the city itself. Took me a bit to realize this…

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When I DID realize this I hopped on and let it take me to The Bund. This is the walking area along the river, with a spectacular view of the skyline that includes the famous Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Let me just say, this city was at MAX capacity. Note the tip on traveling during the holiday in China. I hopped on the bus again and crossed the river over the famous Nanpu bridge for a closer view of Jin MaoTower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. Followed by lunch at “The Cool Docks” near The Bund.

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I didn't have any plans, so I had a cab take me in the direction of the place I was staying where I had seen some garden attraction listed on the Big Bus app. Oh wow. So doing this, I ran across the Shanghai Old Town and Yu Yuan Bazaar. I clearly did not do my homework on Shanghai because this uber-famous attraction came out of no where for me. Imagine thinking you’re headed to some sort of serene garden scene and coming upon this crazy, beautiful, historic-looking, mad house of an area. I’m so glad I did though. It was the highlight of my day.

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Afterwards, my host took me to a place called New York Deli for a burrito. BEST and biggest burrito of my life. Granted, I hadn’t had Mexican food in two months and was having some intense cravings…but STILL. Tip: GO THERE.

Day 2: Shanghai

My host and his friend suggested I go to the French Concession for brunch at a place called Sunflour. Tip: Ask for and always always take the advice of locals. Best suggestion ever. The concession is a really famous area of Shanghai, but it wasn’t on the app, so I never would have known to go there otherwise. I hopped on the metro (I have NEVER navigated a metro system solo before. I’m quite proud.) and walked about 15 minutes to this place utilizing my handy offline map. This area is BEAUTIFUL. I could have spent all day there.

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After I went back to People’s Square. I had decided today was going to be museum day (I actually really enjoy most museums) since it was getting pretty hot. After a long walk and little nap in the grass. Tip: If you’re tired, rest. If you’re hot, sit in the shade. If you’re hungry, eat. Never feel obligated to go full steam ahead. I waited in line for The Shanghai Museum. I spent 3 hours here! Exhibits on Chinese painting, calligraphy, coins, ceramics, bronze, etc. I’ve taken a couple classes on Chinese art and culture, and it was really interesting to see so many of the things I learned about in person.

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The Contemporary Art museum I had planned to spend the evening in was unexpectedly closed, so I was again at a loss as to what to do. The app had said a Nanjing Pedestiran Street was close so I thought “why not, I’ll wander over there for a bit to kill some time.” Again, SO GLAD I did. There were tons of people and the place was lit up in a vegas-esque way. As I was walking I was thinking how long I’d been on my feet, how sore they were, and how great a foot rub would be. I turned to my right and saw a sign that said “Foot Massage: 5 Floor.” Done. I got my first ever professional foot massage for about $10. BEST THING EVER, and a perfect conclusion to my day.

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Day 3: Hangzhou

I decided to pay for a guided tour to Hangzhou. It seemed simpler. So my guide picked me bright and early so we could beat the traffic on our 3 hour drive. I love long car rides. I always sleep like a baby. I woke up in one of the greenest places I’ve ever been, exacerbated by the fact I’ve been smack in the middle of large metropolitan areas for two months.

First, we went on a boat ride around West Lake. According to my guide, less than ten years ago the lake used to sit pretty stagnant, and frequently smelled. Now, it is fed by a river and is absolutely beautiful. There are three small islands, one of which is open to visitors. The entire area around the lake is now a World Heritage site, so large infrastructure cannot be built. After the lake we walked to Huaguang Park, a continuation of the beauty that abounds in this place.

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After lunch we visited Lingyin (souls retreat) Temple. It is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in China and has a history of over 1,600 years. Again, I nerded out a bit about things I’d learned in classes. Stone carvings, and different buddhas, bodhisattvas, and arhats. The stories and beliefs around this particular religious culture are extremely interesting, and oftentimes quite beautiful. To end the day, I was driven through Longjing Tea Village, where tea bushes grow on hillsides and farmers can be seen scattered throughout the plantations. Apparently, Hangzhou green tea is THE green tea.

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With another free evening ahead of me, I asked my guide about an area called Xintiandi that I had seen on my app. She suggested an alternate district that “is the same old style, but still has residents.” So to Tianzifang I went. Again, ALWAYS ask and take the advice of locals. I spent a great evening wandering around the narrow lanes of this area, among people and in and out of shops. I wanted some memento from this trip, but I had been unable to decide what to get. I ended up picking up several postcards that depicted the area and Shanghai as a whole. When in doubt, pictures. Plus they travel well.

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Day 4: Suzhou

For my final day, I had decided to go the town of Suzhou, famous for its gardens and being the “Venice of the East.”

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This involved taking the fast train from Shanghai, a feat I’ve never even remotely done myself before. At first the man working the ticket booth could not understand what I was trying to say. My fault not his of course, but frustrating nevertheless. By this point my days of travel had started to wear on me a bit, and I very nearly just hopped on the metro back to some familiar part of Shanghai. But I decided to try one more time after asking someone at the information kiosk to write down my request. SUCCESS. I was headed to Suzhou. Tip: if the bullet train is an option, DO IT. It’s extremely punctual, quick, simple, and clean. Tip: Always ask for help. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid if, regarding the particular situation, you in fact are.

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I had no plans for Suzhou, but I had looked at some of the attractions on a map before leaving. I had a cab take me to the Suzhou Museum. Always a good bet right? Of course. As soon as I got out, men and women holding umbrellas (it was raining pretty steadily) swarmed me trying to sell me tour packages. Eesh. I escaped by getting in line for the museum. Fabulous decision. This particular museum was designed by I.M. Pei himself, who is a native of the area. He is most famous for designing a little thing called the LOUVRE PYRAMID. The exhibits mostly featured work of the Literati, a scholarly court class who spent a lot of time developing artistic expression. More nerding out. There was also a good exhibit with more contemporary works, which I hadn’t seen any of yet.

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There was an exit towards an old governor’s home. Again, I had no plans so I wandered throughout here. The covered walkways offered shelter from the rain, but the rain itself dripping and streaming along the bamboo in the gardens was absolutely beautiful. The rain muffled sounds and cleared tourists so that the whole environment felt very serene.

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After grabbing some lunch and wandering around the streets of this area a bit PIC OF CANAL , I got a ticket into the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the largest of the famous Suzhou gardens. Absolutely breathtaking. Especially in the rain. So much so, I can only hope pictures can do it some justice in ways I know my words will not.

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Then I grabbed a cab to the train station to take me to Shanghai so I could get to the airport so I could catch my flight to Qingdao and catch a cab back to the university so I could finally, FINALLY rest.

Tip: Flexibility. Patience. Curiosity. Humor. Keep these handy at all times and life will be just dandy.