Recently, I travelled to Shanghai, China to attend the first ever Consumer Electronic Show (aka CES Asia). More on what I found at CES in future post very soon. As this was my first trip to Asia, I wanted to document my experiences and while it sounds cliche, it has definitely changed me…in the best possible way.
This was also my first true experience in an unfamiliar culture and language on another continent. I was surprised to find how different it was than everything I was expecting.
Deciding on going to China was somewhat last minute. Lucas Matheson, CEO of Pinshape.com (a company I advise) was invited to speak about 3D printing there and I thought it would be a good investment of time & money to see the latest in 3D printing from a Chinese perspective, as well as support Lucas.
Things started off with acquiring a Chinese Travel Visa which was a bit challenging at first due to some inadequate paperwork on my part but once I got it sorted, I was good to go with a 10 year entry visa to China.
After getting some Chinese Yuan (aka RMB – roughly 5-1 Canadian dollar at the time of this writing), I packed my bags and headed to the airport. I flew Air Canada on their brand new Dreamliner 787 jet and even though I was in economy class, I was impressed with the service and the plane amenities. My ticket from Vancouver to Shanghai (direct) was only a little more than my flight to Ottawa a week earlier…which makes no sense.
We left Canada around Noon on a Friday and arrived in Shanghai around 4pm Saturday afternoon thanks to the international date line and the 13 hour flight. We headed to our hotel in the heart of the Pudong district. The host hotels for CES were long sold out and we found an incredibly inexpensive hotel just a few minute walk from the Metro line which was surrounded by a thriving market atmosphere.
To get used to the time change, we pushed ourselves to stay up as late as possible on the first night and we made it until about 10pm. We wondered around the neighbourhood and around every corner, found something interesting. Right across from our hotel in a large plaza area in front of a closed mall, a group of seniors would dance the night away.
We settled into some local food at a place we’d visit a few more times during the trip because of it’s amazing food, cold beer and being just steps from our hotel.
After a solid night’s rest, we headed out into the city to get registered for CES and figure out the Metro system. Shanghai uses the same train system that Vancouver uses, just at a much larger scale.
The train stations are seemingly everywhere with many being interchanges to other routes. Fortunately they have an english app for navigating the system and even the ticket machines have an English button which helped immensely. I was also surprised to find that on the trains themselves, they would announce the next stop in both Chinese and English as well as on LED sign boards in each car. The app would show you the closest station to your location and then you could easily plot a route that was either the fastest or the simplest based on transfers you’d have to do. It couldn’t have been easier to get around. The trains didn’t run very late so we ended up in cabs (also inexpensive) almost nightly but Shanghai also has Uber.
Outside our train station was my first taste of street food. This guy was there every morning making a number of tasty items for a grab and go breakfast. It was mesmerizing just watching him work his magic.
I had to Hyperlapse my breakfast being prepared:
Total cost: 4RMB or about $0.80Cdn.
Shanghai is full of scooters…literally millions of them. Everyone seems to drive one with most being electric. When I first saw a parking area packed with scooters, I thought it was a scooter store.
There are coin operated charging stations everywhere you go.
We quickly learned that people like their horns and highbeams. They use them constantly like radar to let you know they are coming and to get out of the way. I fully expected to witness some accidents while waiting to cross a street but it never happened. Here’s a few minutes of the chaos in front of my hotel:
The next day, I joined a group tour for lunch and a visit to the Bund where you can view Pudong from across the Huangpu river. The weather was sunny and clear, not what I was expecting for Shanghai. Despite many people telling me to expect smog and dark skies, it was hot, sunny and humid almost the entire week I was there.
I came back down to the Bund area that night to see the light show on the buildings and experience the shopping district. As soon as I exited the Metro station I was hounded by people offering all kinds of goods and services…a little annoying but you can just keep walking.
Next up was a tour of the Old City and Yu Garden after an amazing lunch. This felt like a tourist trap but was actually a lot of fun to wander around. This is where I was finally able to purchase a local SIM card for my phone. After visiting many mobile stores, I couldn’t find anyone that would sell me a prepaid data plan. But since this was a tourist area, there were a few vendors offering them.
This is also another spot to buy fake Rolex watches and lots of other consumer goods…be prepared to haggle hard to get a good deal. I found many consumer goods to actually cost more than back home in Canada which really surprised me…in some cases legitimate goods would cost as much as 20% more than I could find them at Amazon on even in stores.
After a night out with the CES folks for a gala dinner, it was onto another tour, this time about 45 minutes outside of Shanghai to the Zhujiajiao Water Village.
Here you wander the seemingly endless alleyways of vendors and make your way to the back of the village where you can then take a water taxi back to the entrance of the village. There was no shortage of food preparation being done along side various goods for sale.
Once back in Shanghai, we headed to a silk factory to learn how silk is made and to browse some of the textiles made with it.
The final CES related event was a closing dinner at the House of Roosevelt, across from the Bund. This place was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. It was also the first night of rain we experienced in Shanghai.
After an amazing dinner, I was able to convince the staff to open the secret panel and let us see the private wine cellar featured in the episode.
The final day in Shanghai was quickly upon us. We had a fair bit of time to wander further out in the neighbourhood and explored. We also visited the ‘fake mall’ that is located under the Metro station at the Science & Technology museum. Stall after stall of knockoff electronics, clothing, handbags and of course, watches.
Our final adventure was taking the MagLev train to the airport. Listed as the fastest train in the world and for only $8 a ticket, we had to try it out.
I shot video of the entire 15 minute ride in realtime…around the 5:00 mark you can really see how much faster the train is than the highway vehicle traffic below:
Different times of the day dictate the train’s max speed and during our trip, we hit 300 km/h. We just missed the 420 km/h slot. It was still crazy fast and I was expecting to feel it on the train but it felt like the Skytrain or Metro as it’s a gradual speed increase.
Shanghai is an amazing place to visit and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. In many ways, it felt like any modern city in North America. It was easy to get around, I had little trouble ordering food or haggling with vendors. The excursions outside of Shanghai gave me a sense of what the rest of China is like and only enhanced my desire to return again soon and experience more of it.
If you’re thinking of visiting Shanghai (or China in general), no doubt you’ve heard about the Great Firewall of China. The Chinese government blocks many websites and services westerners use (all of Google’s for example) so you’ll want to consider setting up a virtual private network before you leave for China as it can be difficult to access those sites once in China. I used ExpressVPN (referral link) as they had many positive reviews and run servers in Hong Kong specifically for getting around the firewall. I was able to use my phone and laptop like normal. They support all platforms as well.
Special thanks to Marika, Meredith and Tyler at the Consumer Electronics Association for their assistance with the various events and excursions during my stay in Shanghai.