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“You cannot leave the airport unless there is an emergency. You need to go to the departure zone and wait there.” – the Chinese security officer declared firmly, quickly turning his attention to other visitors.
My fellow Hungarian travelers and I exchanged glances— the disappointment among us was palpable.
We were facing a 19-hour layover at Shanghai Pudong International Airport en route to Auckland, New Zealand, and we were determined not to let it go to waste.
But allow me to rewind the narrative somewhat.
Note: Before diving into the details of Day 0, catch up on the series’ introduction here.
Turbulence and Coincidence
The flight on the Boeing 787 was mostly smooth sailing, except for a spot of turbulence that the sturdy aircraft and the pilot eventually handled with ease. While I was thrown around a bit during the rough air currents and my adrenaline spiked, I echoed the wisdom of an old Dire Straits song: “Why worry?” – and why indeed. We were in capable hands.
An intriguing moment of synchronicity occurred mid-flight. As I watched the first ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movie, a scene unfolded — one I didn’t recall — where Gandalf informs Frodo:
As soon as he said this, it dawned on me: It is October the 24th right now as I’m flying to New Zealand, the place where the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies were filmed!
I’ve found this coincidence to be serendipitous, to say the least.
Maybe I was pre-destined to leave for New Zealand after all.
Touching down in Shanghai at the break of dawn, I waded through the oh-so-familiar sea of security protocols, reminiscent of my Beijing layover en route to the Philippines back then, albeit this time, I was a solitary traveler, and decidedly more prepared. My personal mission was clear: secure a 24-hour visa-free transit to venture out into the city – an opportunity I was determined to seize.
The security procedure involved an amusing back-and-forth across aisles and officers, an exercise that appeared more comical than efficient. With that initial setback from that one stoic official, a small mutiny of Czech and Hungarian travelers brought a show of force at the security desk. We formed an alliance of quiet but determined persistence until, after some negotiation, the tide turned, another officer signaled approval, and the transit permits were ours.
As it seemed to others that I came prepared for this little adventure, I became an impromptu guide for Misi, a Hungarian youngster, and Valerie from the Czech Republic, and our little group was finally ready to take on the city of Shanghai.
The Shanghai Sprint: Our Itinerary
Indeed, I had a blueprint—a small but achievable plan that was delicately balanced between hopeful and flexible, taking into account the reality of navigating a city enshrouded by its regulations.
The plan was the following:
- Use the Maglev’s warp-speed to journey into the heart of Shanghai.
- Stock up on water and snacks for the adventure ahead.
- Stroll along the Bund, soaking in the breathtaking views of Shanghai’s sublime skyscrapers.
- Seek serenity in the traditional architecture of Yu Garden.
- Explore the adjacent bazaar and venture into the lesser-known nooks and crannies of the area.
But of course, despite the meticulous planning, one must heed the inevitable barriers.
Navigating Barriers: A Traveler’s Heads-Up
When exploring any part of China, preparation is key. Navigating the intricacies of this country requires precaution, as there are several barriers a European traveler might face.
First and foremost, don’t expect the comfort of widespread English comprehension; the language barrier is substantial. It’s as if you’re in a labyrinth with no guiding thread, relying solely on signs and symbols to find your way. You can use well-regarded translation apps such as Papago or Youdao for translating between Chinese and English. Why not Google Translate, you ask?
Navigating the Great Firewall
Shanghai sits behind the Great Firewall of China, a digital barrier that censors the common online services you’re accustomed to, silencing the likes of Google and Facebook. Your trusty Google Translate will most likely not work, and your outdated map of China on Google Maps will be of little use as well, unfortunately. To evade this, rely on specific apps designed to navigate these restrictions, such as the Baidu Map for navigation. Alternatively, you can also slip past the Great Firewall of China by using a technique akin to a magician’s art of misdirection – that is, spoofing your location using a VPN. An example of a trusted VPN application is Astrill VPN, a service that has stood the test of the cyber fortress and is favored by locals as well.
Your trusty international credit and debit cards are virtually useless here since they’re incompatible with most local payment systems. To overcome this, you’ll need to do some groundwork: download AliPay, for instance, where you can register your card and use the app to pay everywhere by scanning or showing a QR code upon payment.
Lastly, when it comes to staying connected without the hassle of buying SIM cards, eSIMs come to the rescue. Say goodbye to the era of manually swapping SIM cards in your phone every time you travel abroad. These digital SIMs can be activated right from your device, connecting you to local networks. The service I used, Nomad, allowed me to purchase a 10GB plan that worked both in China and New Zealand. Just remember to purchase and configure your eSIM before embarking on your journey as activation will likely require an internet connection.
Armed with these tools, stepping through the barriers becomes a manageable part of your adventure, and the wonders of China await on the other side.
The Pulse of Shanghai: Encounters and Observations
The administrative tangle at the airport hadn’t dulled our spirits; if anything, it brightened the sense of achievement that coursed through our group as we emerged victorious, free to explore the city beyond.
Faced with the financial and connectivity hurdles confronting Misi and Valerie, I proposed a simple yet practical solution—I’d foot the bill for our day’s expenses. After a brief deliberation, they embraced the idea. With my Alipay app at the ready, our day unfolded seamlessly. And in case you wonder about the expense for our day-long exploration of Shanghai? A mere 10,000 HUF per person—a negligible amount that paled in comparison to the rich experiences shared and the joy of companionship.
Our first taste of Shanghai was the Maglev train – a high-speed magnetic levitation train that connects the airport to the city center. With a top speed that turns heads and the swiftness of a hawk in flight, the Maglev whisked us from the airport to the city center in a mere 7 minutes, covering an impressive 30 kilometers.
Walking toward The Bund, we were struck by the locals’ quaint activities that gave us a taste of nostalgia. It was as though we had been transported back to a different era, an old-time Europe, as we observed an adult engaged in the nostalgic play of hoop rolling.
Nearby, a group of people were fervently engaged in a game of curling – another unexpected sight.
But despite these sights, surprisingly, even in a city bustling with millions, there was an unusual quiet, like the city took a break. Every few steps, we saw a couple of policemen, but instead of the usual city buzz, it was oddly quiet.
The Bund, the famous walkway that unfolded in front of us, was a mix of calm and grandness, and the emptiness of the place gave us a clear view of the amazing buildings across the Huangpu River.
The skyscrapers, made of glass and steel, stood tall and sparkled in the sunlight. Their reflections danced on the water, creating a stunning view of the city. It was a beautiful scene in the morning stillness.
Our exploration of Shanghai’s wonders led us next to Yu Garden, an oasis of calm that seemed to hold the weight of the city at bay. Discovering Yu Garden was like stepping through time – ancient beauty nestled in modernity. As we wandered through this expanse of peacefulness, we were enveloped by the meticulous art of traditional Chinese landscape design, which has withstood the passage of centuries. The garden, a treasure sculpted during the Ming Dynasty, was a mesmerizing array of pavilions, ponds, rockeries, and arched bridges—each element delicately balanced to create a scene from an ancient scroll come to life.
Perhaps the most memorable resident of this peaceful enclave was the ancient ginkgo biloba tree, claiming its place on earth for over four hundred years.
My company, it turned out, was more than just good—it was essential. As the city scenes shifted around us, from the boisterous Bund to the serene Yu Garden, it was the interaction, the conversation and the shared meals that punctuated our time with meaning. We dined on traditional Chinese fare, indulged in the local sights of a hidden marketplace, and even as the zesty spices tingled on our tongues, it was the richness of our companionship that infused our layover with lasting warmth.
Returns and Reflections
As the day waned, the time eventually came to return to the airport with spirits high and bodies weary. The city receded into the distance, but its impressions lodged firmly in our thoughts.
We waded through the check-in process, and life at Pudong airport quieted into a lull, allowing for rest and reflection at the departure area.
In the airport’s sanctuary, my thoughts meandered through the day’s sights and the technology we had encountered, tech that seemed omnipresent, yet curiously outdated in its appearance—like relics from an alternate ’80s future. It was everywhere, from the silent zoom of electric scooters that appeared to have wheeled straight out of the past, to the car brands that mimicked familiar western makes with just a hint of difference. As if everything was a Chinese know-off, but here, this was the reality. This was the original.
Moreover, I couldn’t help but ponder the layers of administration we had navigated. Our fingerprints and faces had been scanned more than once, our personal details cataloged at every turn. Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I harbored doubts about the true efficiency of this digital surveillance. Was all this scrutiny genuinely needed and used, or was it merely an elaborate facade, a performance orchestrated under governmental directives? Perhaps it was a byproduct of their Communist ideology, a manifestation of the state’s desire to maintain control. It seemed to me that there was an unsettling gap between the wealth of information collected and the wisdom with which it might be utilized.
Due to these reflections, it became clear to me that though Shanghai’s allure is undeniable, with its towering skyscrapers and bustling streets, the city’s vibe—its very essence—just didn’t quite align with my personal temperament.
Closing this layover trip to Shanghai, my companions voiced their gratitude for my preparedness, but the genuine camaraderie and meaningful conversations we shared made me equally thankful for their presence.
This layover, this prelude, though brief, turned out to be its own little adventure; a teaser for the grand escapades awaiting on the horizon.
I was ready for New Zealand’s chapters to unfold.