My First China Trip in 20 Years

China has been strange and fascinating to me all my life. It is the home to more than 5,000 years of rich history, art and culture, and the homeland of my maternal grandparents. Yet, unlike my homeland Singapore, a shining jewel of perfect globalized modernism, it was the mysterious and exotic Far East, much like how Japan seemed to most Westerners, with ways that were not intuitive to me. But that was my impression of China from my childhood, and I was eager to re-experience it as an adult. Shanghai, the cosmopolitan city by the coast, and Chengdu, home of panda bears, seemed perfectly poised for my re-acquaintance with this diverse land.

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Flying to China

LAX to PVG

We flew from LAX to PVG directly on Delta Air Lines. Delta had me and Bao, my photographer, seated in Delta Premium Select, which comes with Sky Priority services, including premium boarding and expedited baggage service — awesome since I had 3 large suitcases with me! I love flying Delta not just because of their superior in-flight wifi — I also look forward to entertainment on Delta Studio, which offers more than 300 movies (including nearly all the current top-grossing box office hits like Crazy Rich Asians and A Star Is Born) for nonstop entertainment, should sleep escape me.

Taking a cat-nap in Delta Premium Select on Delta Air Lines.

Taking a cat-nap in Delta Premium Select on Delta Air Lines.

PVG to CTU, and back

From Shanghai, we flew to Chengdu on China Eastern Airlines (CEA). CEA is a partner airline of Delta’s and its fleet of planes was just recently upgraded. With better cabin lighting, airflow, and seat pitches, the economy cabin felt like premium economy and its premium economy cabin akin to the business class of other airlines. When flying first class, the suite options in the first row allows for the middle 2 seats to turn into a conference area of 4 seats with a large shared table, a design that CEA specially commissioned for their new fleet of A350’s.

 
 
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Ample leg room

aboard China Eastern Airline’s new fleet of A350’s, even in economy class.

 
 

PVG to LAX

On my way back to the Golden State, I flew in Delta One Suites for the first time! It was such an amazing experience, thanks to detailed service by the cabin crew, as well as ample space for me in the suite to put everything. I even brought my new Chengdu friend, a panda bear plushie I’ve named Beixi, with me on the flight, where she could look out at the sky from her spacious perch (i.e. the arm rest area, which is similar to a shelf with a large window). Being 5’ 9” I also appreciate the generous leg room I have to fully stretch out while seated and of course, lying flat. The screen door that closes my space up so I get ultimate privacy to be dorky old me is also something I enjoyed utilizing a lot on the flight. It is certainly one of my top 3 first/business class experiences, and can’t wait to fly in Delta One Suites again when I go to Paris for my birthday!

My cozy lie-flat in Delta One Suites on my flight back from Shanghai.

My cozy lie-flat in Delta One Suites on my flight back from Shanghai.

Shanghai

Shanghai is basically the New York of China, a city of bright lights that never sleeps, an oriental pearl afloat on the water. We got in late at night, so by the time we got to our hotel, it was almost 11pm. My room in our hotel, Les Suites Orient, directly faced the Bund, and from that view, those lights never ceased shining, until the wee hours of the morning. In the few short days here, we explored Shanghai as keenly as we could, from trying out local Shanghainese food to checking out what was historically cool.

French Concession

The French Concession used to be an area for French settlement and control in China in the late 1800’s when the Qing Dynasty lost territory to invading foreign powers during a “scramble for concessions”. Now, it is a cute remnant of French colonialism with European-style  architecture, little cafes and shops. We enjoyed craft coffee and pastries and walks along its tree-lined boulevards.

Tianzifang (田子坊)

Technically a part of the French Concession, Tianzifang used to be a winding back alley that got developed into a thriving arts district with bars, cafes, restaurants, boutiques, craft shops and design studios. It’s known for its Shikumen (“stone-framed door”) buildings of Old Shanghai.

Reveling amidst neon lights in Rambler, a traveler’s bar tucked away in Tianzifang.

Reveling amidst neon lights in Rambler, a traveler’s bar tucked away in Tianzifang.

Twirling under the iconic Chinese red lanterns of Tianzifang.

Twirling under the iconic Chinese red lanterns of Tianzifang.

Yu Garden 豫园

A beautiful classical Chinese garden dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), built by a government official for his parents to enjoy their old age in tranquility and happiness. It is nestled in a maze of tourist-trap-like shops which are not part of the garden but seemingly so. Get tickets at the ticketing booth, find the entrance to the garden by following signs to an uncharacteristically nondescript hole-in-the-wall to enjoy this place away from the cacophony of shoppers.

Taking a moment to myself in the serenity of Yu Garden.

Taking a moment to myself in the serenity of Yu Garden.

Pearl Tower and The Bund

The evening skyline of the Bund is arguably the most beautiful night scene of Shanghai, thanks to the riotous display of lights from buildings like Pearl Tower, the world’s third tallest TV and radio tower, along the river banks. We saw the Bund from two vantage points, our hotel Les Suites Orient which is right across from Pearl Tower, and also Ritz Carlton’s rooftop restaurant and bar, where Pearl Tower is a stone’s throw away.

Shanghai’s night-time skyline looks especially alluring from this high up.

Shanghai’s night-time skyline looks especially alluring from this high up.

Shanghainese Cuisine

Recommended by the concierge at our hotel, we decided to go to a local spot called Dexing Mianguan (德兴面馆) for some authentic Shanghainese noodles. It was definitely an eye-opening experience because what Shanghainese folks prefer with their noodles were: 1) a strong, sweet broth, paired with 2) a variety of refried meats. The noodles itself was great; oodles of slurpy goodness with just the right amount of bite, yet everything else that came with it was an acquired taste for us.

 
 

Chengdu

In many ways, Chengdu was just as glitzy as Shanghai — and possibly more so to many. Even though this city is landlocked, there are many modern developments that sat alongside historic buildings in ways that seamlessly blended the two juxtaposing elements. The residents of Chengdu are also significantly more fashion-forward and chic-looking. Not one person wore a boring black coat in the Spring chill! And more than once, guests at our hotel looked like they were about to step into Fashion Week.

The first hotel we stayed at in Chengdu, Niccolo Hotel, is my favorite stay of the whole trip. Not only is the breakfast buffet spread the most comprehensive of all the breakfast spreads I’ve seen — everything from Eggs Benedict to Chinese dough fritters to croissants to crêpes — our VPN service worked seamless here as well. Niccolo is also located in the heart of the city, right by Taikoo Li, which makes traveling to and from here easy peasy. If I went back to Chengdu, this would be my hotel of choice.

Taikoo Li

An award-winning shopping and recreational district in Chengdu, Taikoo Li is the perfect mix of old and new. Restored heritage buildings hundreds of years old currently house the likes of Cartier, Hermès, Off-White, and Gucci, making this a veritable shopping paradise. And nestled in the middle of this dazzling array of shops is Daci Temple and Monastery (古大圣慈寺), which has been around for more than 1,600 years! Its current architecture dates back to the Qing Dynasty but it has been serving the community since the 3rd century, making it one of Chengdu’s oldest temples.

Daci Temple and Monastery looking grand and inviting with these brilliantly-hued chambers.

Daci Temple and Monastery looking grand and inviting with these brilliantly-hued chambers.

Jinli Pedestrian Street and Wuhou Temple

Jinli Pedestrian Street might be tourist-infested but it is just such a beautiful classical Chinese area, and super fun to poke around. Located inside is Wuhou Temple (武侯祠), dedicated to Zhuge Liang, the Marquis Wu (Wuhou) of the Kingdom of Shu in the Three Kingdoms Period (220 - 280). Zhuge was an excellent politician, militarist, diplomat and astronomer. He was the key advisor and right-hand man of Liu Bei, the emperor of Shuhan — the latter’s mausoleum is also inside this historical spot. When you’re tired of exploring historic monuments, stop at one of the stalls for some authentic Chengdu street food. We had some of the best noodles in the city from these stalls!

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

Also known as the Chengdu Panda Base, the research base is 10 km from downtown Chengdu, and was created to closely imitate the natural habitat of giant pandas, China’s national treasure. At 92 acres, this base also houses more than 20 species of rare and endangered wild animals such as red pandas, black-necked cranes, and white storks. Verdant bamboo forests, fresh air, clear lakes and rolling hills merge in beautiful ways to form the most natural-looking panda enclosure. Even though the panda holding activities had been suspended indefinitely, we could still see the pandas, without glass walls or tall fences, literally less than 5 feet from us, in their full glory. Needless to say, we became full-fledged panda lovers after a trip here! You have to spend a few hours here if you’re in Chengdu.

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Blending in

with the lush greenery of the bamboo forests here. It was such a treat to see giant pandas and other rare wildlife up close!

Chengdu Food

Chengdu cuisine is pretty spicy (because it’s part of Sichuan, known for their hot spices), and it is the good kind of spice. We definitely had our fill of the world-famous Chengdu hotpots — where we cook thinly-sliced meats and vegetables in pots of boiling broth of different flavors — and you can find loads of worthy hotpot restaurants in the downtown area. But the real food gems in this city were the noodles! Freshly made, tossed in a savory spicy sauce and mixed with crisp lettuce, minced meat, and wontons, Chengdu’s noodles were the best Chinese noodles I’ve ever had in my life! And I’m not exaggerating. If you grew up thinking Panda Express was legit Chinese food, Chengdu’s noodles will blow your socks off. Look for a place where only locals go, and the menus only in Chinese, and ask for what their flagship noodles are…it’ll be well worth the trouble. My favorite spot is along Youlou Street (油篓街) at a hole-in-the-wall called 素椒杂酱面 for their delectable noodles and wontons!

Tips for a Better China Experience

China, being the veritable country of rich history and culture, can seem intimidating at first for a non-Chinese speaker to explore and understand. Even though I speak the language fluently, having grown up in a highly-westernized society made some of the Chinese social mores seem counterintuitive to me. Once you fully-immerse yourself in the discovery of all the cool things that China has to offer, and just go with the flow, things will just naturally fall in place and make for a great experience. Here are just some of my tips and tricks to help you get there:

VPN

Download a few different VPN services to start with to get access to American apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and your email service (Google suite and the likes of it), when you land in China. Because of the Chinese firewall, it can be challenging at first to gain access to your necessities but fear not, most hotel concierge teams would know the best VPN services that work for their foreign guests. We recommend VPN 360 — it worked really well for us at the first 2 hotels we stayed at. Don’t be afraid to change up your VPN service if it stops working midway or doesn’t work at the next hotel you’re at — repeat the process of asking your concierge or the hotel manager for the VPN du jour. They have the best information, given that they deal with overseas guests everyday...and we got lovely recommendations for food and drink through VPN banter too.

Taxis

In Shanghai, the very first driver that picked us up from the airport told us about the big 4 taxi companies and why we should only ride with them — they run by the meter and essentially, by the book. I remember these major companies and their cabs by their official colors: Dazhong (cyan/turquoise), Haibo (cobalt blue), Jinjiang (white), and Qiangsheng (yellow, sometimes green). If you take these cabs, you can expect your experience to be similar to taking a medallion taxi in NYC. There are also red cabs but they operate somewhat differently: they don’t run by the meter but by a price that you and the driver agree to, and that total is typically a lot higher than a metered cab. China also has its own version of Uber — Didi — that I did not use because I didn’t feel 100% confident in its safety standards, although I have seen a lot of people use it, especially when taxis are hard to come by during peak hours. If you’re worried about hailing a cab once you’re out and about, try what we did — we grouped our locations by proximity and always took the first cab of the day from the hotel, where the concierge can assist in booking. When outdoors, we stick to landmark places to hail cabs, or we go to taxi lines of other hotels. And if you carry a card with the hotel’s information (name and address at least) in Chinese, you should be fine no matter where you go in the city, although it wouldn’t hurt to know the major landmarks near your hotel so that if the street names don’t ring a bell, drivers can still rely on the landmarks you remembered to take you back.

Language

Similar to folks from Japan and Korea, most Chinese in China do not speak English, but if you have Google Translate on your phone (make sure VPN is working as well), you should be fine. Granted, I spoke Chinese the whole time I was there, because I get to banter with the drivers and learn more about the land from a local perspective. If you do research on the places before you go to learn its history and evolution, you can feel good knowing that you’ve probably covered 95% of what you will learn there. The same language or not, the Chinese we met were extremely helpful — when my photographer Bao thought she lost her bag of camera equipment on the taxi we came back in, the hotel team sprung into action without fully understanding what she said in English, trying to chase down the cab to get her stuff back. It turned out to be a false alarm, but that was a demonstration of how helpful they are in spite of a language barrier.

Can’t get enough of these Chinese lanterns!

Can’t get enough of these Chinese lanterns!

Maps

Google Maps does not have the latest street names of all the places in Shanghai or Chengdu, but it shouldn’t deter you from getting around. The most prominent landmarks are still where they’re supposed to be, so that is extremely helpful. Going by landmarks instead of street names have saved me more than once, so I highly recommend that.

WeChat

Chinese businesses lives on WeChat. Everything, from restaurant menus to paying for food and transportation, happens on this app. If you get WeChat and connect your bank details to it, that could make paying for products and services a lot easier, but we wanted to stick to cash. Thankfully, once I explained that I wasn’t from China and lived abroad, they were more than happy to help me out, sans WeChat. If you aren’t Asian-looking they wouldn’t assume you already have WeChat and will probably just help you out with a different method in the first place.

Concept of Queues/Lines:

In many places we went to, sometimes we get cut in line by others. Although I was irked the first few times, because that goes against the point of lining up, I’ve come to realize that there’s a method to this madness. It seems to me that the Chinese value efficiency, especially in a social setting, so if one person is taking “too long”, the common consensus is to let others go ahead, and join in again when they can move “at the speed of traffic”. It’s literally like driving in California on the fast lane: except everyone wants to go in the fast lane, so if you’re not moving at the speed of traffic, you should move out of the lane quickly, or the person behind will overtake you. I kind of implicitly realized that as I concluded my trip, and it was certainly an aha! moment for me!

 

 

I hope this post on my China experience was helpful to you, and that it’s made it easier for you to consider this country of beauty and wonder a potential vacation spot! Feel free to ask me any questions by dropping them in the comment box, and I’ll get to it ASAP!

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Disclaimer: This post has been sponsored by Delta Air Lines and China Eastern Airlines. That said, historical facts about the various sightseeing spots came from researching online, and all opinions and views expressed are my own, reflecting my unique experience flying to and traveling in China. I urge you to drop me a comment if you have any questions or queries about my experience — I would love to help in any way I can!