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What China is Really Like: My Shanghai Experience

Author: Jack TorrTime: 2024-01-02 11:25:01

Table of Contents

Arriving in Shanghai

My journey to Shanghai began with both nervousness and excitement. As I prepared to embark into China, I had no idea what to expect. I wondered if it would match the perceptions often portrayed in Western media - a heavily surveilled police state, starkly different from societies I knew. Yet beyond any headlines, I hoped to discover the real China by immersing myself in this unfamiliar place.

After landing in Shanghai, I marveled at the efficiency of the city's transportation. At the airport, I effortlessly set up Alipay to pay for metro tickets and other transactions via QR code. Then I boarded the maglev train into downtown - reaching speeds over 300 km/hr while floating inches above the track! Just like that, I arrived in central Shanghai - a journey that took less than 5 minutes.

Taking the Maglev Train

The Shanghai maglev train currently operates the only commercial high-speed magnetic levitation line in the world. I was amazed reading the specs - it's designed to reach a blistering 431 km/hr by using an electromagnetic force to lift the train cars up into the air! My friend Matt later managed to catch a ride during peak operation hours, confirming it hit this max speed. The ride itself was exhilarating, almost like being on a rollercoaster. As we accelerated, the train gently tilted allowing me to see the blur of infrastructure zooming past outside. I watched our speedometer rapidly climb to over 300 km/hr. Even as my ears popped from air pressure changes, I marveled at this futuristic technology propelling me across the city.

Visiting Shanghai Tower

After arriving downtown, I headed to the Shanghai Tower - currently China's tallest building at 632 meters high. On the 118th floor observation deck, I was treated to stunning 360 degree views of the city. The deck features tall angled glass windows that lean outwards, creating a thrilling feeling of standing in open air. Looking out across the dense forest of skyscrapers, I was amazed by Shanghai's ultramodern cityscape. Yet down below, the city also blended this futuristic vibe with touches of traditional Chinese architecture and culture. Later in my journey, I would continue discovering this fusion of old and new that gives Shanghai its unique character.

Exploring the City

Over the next few days, I explored numerous neighborhoods across Shanghai by foot and metro. Each area seemed to reveal a new dimension of this massive city. For example, the historical Bund riverfront felt reminiscent of 1920s Europe, while the sprawling luxury shops of Nanjing Road felt straight out of a modern megalopolis.

Yet wherever I went, I was met by Shanghai's famous hustle and bustle. Crowds thronged in the metro, crossed chaotic intersections, and sampled sweet treats from the city's vibrant street food scene. Of course, I had to join in! I soon developed a love for scallion pancakes, soup dumplings, and numerous other tasty local snacks.

Local Transportation

Metro System

Shanghai's immense metro system became my trusty mode of transport. With 18 lines and over 700 km of track, I could conveniently access almost any corner of the city. It was easy to purchase RFID cards and simply tap on/off at metro gates. I was amazed by how punctual and frequent trains seemed to arrive - even during rush hour when cars overflowed with passengers. Beyond the metro, I also tried electric rental bikes, ferries crossing the Huangpu River, and even the Transrapid maglev train again! Shanghai offered seemingly endless transportation options to experience.

QR Code Payments

Yet perhaps most impressive was Shanghai's cashless culture centered around QR code payments. Before arriving, I downloaded the Alipay app and connected my credit card. This let me seamlessly pay for meals, attractions, transport and more by scanning QR codes printed everywhere. By foregoing cash, QR payments enabled blazing fast transactions even in crowded restaurants and stores. And with my payments recorded digitally, keeping travel budgets became effortless. This technology left an impression on me - by leveraging digital networks, China seemed years ahead in enabling efficient mobile commerce.

Safety and Security

While warned about heavy security presence, I was relieved to discover a visible yet unobtrusive police force on Shanghai's streets. As a foreigner with camera gear, I attracted the occasional curious glance but was left undisturbed to freely explore. Across different neighborhoods and times of day, I never felt targeted or unsafe.

Rather, effective city governance created an environment where citizens seemed to follow community rules and norms. With crime rates far lower than where I'm from, I quickly adjusted to the safety of being able walk city streets alone late into the evening.

Final Impressions

Overall, my time in Shanghai opened my eyes to realities that defied common assumptions. Behind provocative headlines, I discovered an impressively prosperous and advanced city pulsating with the entrepreneurial spirit of its people. And while political differences exist, on a human level I was touched by the kindness and hospitality shown by locals during my visit.

Clearly there is more to learn about China. But departing Shanghai, seeds of understanding had been planted in my mind - ones that left me eager to discover more of this fascinating country on my next trip!


Q: Do I need to know Chinese to visit Shanghai?
A: No, most people in Shanghai know basic English and signs are translated.

Q: Is Shanghai polluted?
A: From my experience, Shanghai seemed quite green with electric vehicles and plants everywhere. The air quality was fine.

Q: Is Shanghai safe for tourists?
A: Yes, there is a strong police presence and due to strict laws, crime seems quite low. I felt very safe exploring with my camera.