Back to blog index

Fourteen Things I’ll Miss About Shanghai, and Four I Won’t

I can’t believe I leave Shanghai in less than 24 hours for our long awaited China Road Trip – it’s going to be massively exciting to be on that wide open road tomorrow!

The enormity of what we’re doing has really hit me in the last two weeks as I run frantically from hardware store to camping goods store, trying to find tricky bits of equipment like head torches and solar-powered camping lamps, then run back home to preserve some lemons. Because everyone knows a camping trip isn’t complete without two jars of preserved lemons.

There have been a few very dark moments too where we thought the whole great big thing was going to fall over in a heap. After spending months just finding a campervan we could rent, contract negotiations on the van rental were completed only five days ago, mostly because we couldn’t find a van that had most things working in it for a price that Mr Chen, the campervan rental guy, found attractive.

In an added twist it turns out the campervan we took for our test-drive weekend was completely and utterly illegal for us to drive, but thank god Mr Chen failed to mention it until we got back. I didn’t want to spend my first night in jail before I’d even started the adventure.

The proper, real, and apparently legal campervan arrived yesterday morning, and then we discovered the ‘seatbelts’ Mr Chen had installed were in fact not ‘genuine seatbelts’ – so back it went for some more basic safety features to be installed, and was returned to us fully seatbelted last night. We have a van! We have a plan (of sorts – I’ve only had time to plan our first stop, and after that it gets a bit vague…)! Whatever, we’re going on the road!

I will miss my beloved Shanghai though, so I’ve made a list to remind myself of all the great things about the city that I won’t be seeing in the rest of China.

From next week – depending on the reliability of our high-tech on-the-road portable wifi – I’ll be posting on Mondays and Thursdays about our travels.

And for daily updates and all the gossip don’t forget you can follow our adventures on Facebook, Twitter (@nanchanglu) and Weibo (nanchanglu).

Please join us!

Fourteen Things I’ll Miss About Shanghai


1. The Quirky Citizens

Nowhere else in China is eccentricity so openly embraced as in Shanghai.

Want to wear navy blue trouser socks with your flipflops, accesorized with nothing but a pair of underpants? Go right ahead. Wear pyjamas at all hours for strolling and doing a bit of shopping? Of course you can.
And should you want to wear a rolled up plastic bag on your head – for reasons known only to yourself – no one will even glance at you.

Lovable eccentrics, I will miss you.

2. Shanghai Xiaolongbao

How will I go a whole six months without my weekly fix of Shanghai’s world famous soup dumplings, xiaolongbao?

Sure, the other parts of China will have their own undeniably unique and delicious dumplings and I’ll eat a bucketload of them on my travels, but I’ll always hanker after a steamer full of these plump little xiaolongbao.

3. The Avocado Lady on Wulumuqi Lu

Today I visited the Avocado Lady and bought Italian parsley, feta cheese, pine nuts, tahini, fresh artichokes and a tin of British Lyle’s Golden Syrup. 
No, this isn’t a fine food store but a completely chaotic Chinese vegetable shop run by a delightful woman we all call The Avocado Lady because avocados were the first ‘foreign’ food she ever sold. Now she sells everything I could possibly need to cook the foods I’m familiar with, at prices I can actually afford.
In the corner of the shop is a decrepit chest freezer filled with frozen duck carcasses and racks of lamb. The lady in front of me fished an entire side of smoked salmon from its depths.  

4. Wagas

In a city so recently devoid of good coffee, Wagas sprung up like an oasis with its flat whites, long blacks and a great selection of cakes, pastas and salads.

Soon afterwards, they had a whole chain of coffee shops on their hands and the latest news is their long-awaited arrival on the Beijing coffee scene.

Wagas’ own bakery finally went solo and Baker and Spice on Anfu Lu was born, my favourite coffee haunt in Shanghai – you can hang out at the long communal table, balance on those crazy three-legged stools, drink proper coffee, and eat a piece of great cake.

5. Cycling Along Nanchang Lu 

The plane trees on Nanchang Lu arch over the centre of the street and touch in the middle to form one long green tunnel of shade.

I stop at the intersection with Ruijin Lu where there’s a really good dumpling shop, and wait for the red lights to count down from twenty to zero. Then I wait a bit more so I don’t collide with all the guys whizzing through the red lights in the other direction.
I ride past my old house, and wave to the guy who runs the watch repair shop nearby. He stands outside the shop all day and smokes cigarettes, and never fails to give me a ‘Heh-llllooo!’ when I go past.

6. My Favourite Shanghai Blogs

Wait a second….I won’t have to miss these – I can still read them on the road thanks to the incredible 3G network coverage in just about every inch of China. But here they are anyway, my top three.

A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai – written in MaryAnne’s thoughtful and insightful style, she covers everything from her experiences as a language teacher, her travels, and the vagaries of living in this crazy city.  

The Shanghai Foodist – all things food, all things Shanghai – Jake has been blogging about Shanghai’s street foods, cafes and restaurants for years. I’ll be hungry just looking at the pictures.

The Thirsty Pig – Jimmy eats out more than anyone I know and we all benefit from his fantastic restaurant reviews from wherever in Asia and the US he travels. Such a great resource!
7. Shanghai Street Life

The private made public- that’s how I see the street life of Shanghai, intimate daily moments lived out in the open – a woman washing her hair from a bowl of water, a child being scolded, an intense game of mahjong, the prize pool in stacks of notes on the corner of the table.

In every corner of every lane city, life stories are being lived on the street.

8. The Birds of Fuxing Park

The old men bring their ornate birdcages by biccyle and on foot, covered with hand-embroidered blue drapes, and take them to the quiet corner of Fuxing Park behind the pond.

There the cages are hung side by side amongst the trees, and the birds sing their beautiful songs together while the old men gossip.

Part of me hates the sight of birds trapped in cages, but part of me loves the centuries-old tradition.

9. Shanghai Taxis

Last week a Shanghai taxi driver spent the thirty minute ride telling me how proud he was of his son, studying computer engineering at university. He hoped I might have a friend in Australia who would make a suitable match for him.

He and his wife work turn about at 24 hour shifts in their taxi, seeing each other at 6am each day for breakfast and handover. He told me taxi-driving licence was only previously possible if you were born in Shanghai, meaning all taxi drivers have an intimate knowledge of the city.

Now, a lack of drivers has meant there are some non-Shanghainese drivers on the roads, in his eyes a deplorable degradation of the profession.

10.  Cong You Bing, from the Famous Cong You Bing Guy

In a tiny little lane off Nanchang Lu just near Maoming Lu, is a tiny little kitchen annexe with a plastic roof and a barndoor-style door opening out on to the lane. The kitchen walls are black with years of accumulated grease and dust, just visible from the light of a single bare bulb, but from this unprepossessing room comes the best cong you bing in Shanghai, made by an old man who starts work at 2am every day to be ready to cook by dawn.

In the long queue I’ve met people from Hong Kong, people from other cities in China, and locals alike who’ve all heard about how good the salty, buttery scallion pancakes are, all waiting at least an hour to taste one, united in their foodie obsession.


11.  The View from my Kitchen Window
The thing I loved most about our new apartment on Nanchang Lu was the light-filled kitchen with arched windows looking down onto the street. It’s the best kitchen I’ve had in Shanghai – spacious, with a big refrigerator and an oven that works – and I’m giving it all up for six months of cooking in a cupboard on wheels. Sigh.
12. The Pearl Tower. Really.
More rididulous and pink than any other building in the world, the Pearl Tower is the Barbie Sputnik of Shanghai. Yet I love catching sight of it in unexpected places like here in Hongkou, down a laneway full of paper recycling shops.
13. Big Red
I am sure gonna miss this girl. No, not her, the bicycle. The campervan only has one place for bicycles – the roof – and Big Red weighs a tonne and is way too heavy to lift up and down every day. So as much as I love her, she’s going to stay right here in Shanghai.
14. Bilingual Menu Support

Oh boy, this one will be tough. Leaving Shanghai behind means the halcyon days of cheating on my Chinese and getting the bilingual/picture menu every time I eat out are pretty much over. It’ll be back to the sad days of weird bits of offal or six almost identical tofu dishes when we eat out, at least until my menu Chinese catches up with my road sign Chinese.

And Four Things I Won’t…

1. Skies the colour of dirty dishwater

There’s nothing more depressing than Shanghai’s pollution, and descending from blue skies over the rest of China into the dense smog just makes you want to get on a plane straight out of there.

Shanghai, I’m sending you the bill for my future lung cancer treatment.

2. Traffic Jams Long Enough to Read War and Peace

Shanghai specializes in heavy traffic, the way Beijing specializes in bureaucracy. And while the view from the Second Ring Road is undoubtedly lovely especially on a heavy smog day like the one above, I can think of ten better things I’d rather do with the three hours I just spent laboriously translating all the ads on the back of the bus in front.

3. The Hamster Wheel, Fuxing Park
The first time your kids go on the floating hamster wheel in the pond at Fuxing Park, it’s great fun watching them roll and tumble around like socks in the dryer. But the fifth, eighth, fourteenth and twenty-sixth times you stand there on the frozen concrete, jumping up and down to keep your circulation from seizing up it gets a little repetitive.
4. The 23 Million
A quiet morning on The Bund. That’s a lot of people in one place, a lot of people walking, arguing, talking on their mobile phones, trying to sell me a new genuine iPhone, and elbowing me out of the way. 
I feel I’m ready for a little breathing space.
What do you love most (and least) about this great city? 

Shanghai Street Food #30 Pan Fried Dumplings: Shengjian bao 生煎包

No list of Shanghai Street Foods could be complete without the inclusion of one of the most popular and classic street foods of all – shēngjiānbāo  生煎包 These pan-fried dumplings top the list of street foods for the man in the street and high-end chefs alike – they’re super tasty, a bit oily, and have a crunchy crisp-fried bottom and a soft and pillowy steamed top. 
Shengjianbao are literally dumplings (bāo 包) born (shēng 生) of being shallow-fried (jiān 煎). Born of the oil, so to speak. They share a lot in common with xiaolongbao soup dumplings, being also filled with savory pork and a big slurp of delicious piping hot broth, but are bigger, breadier and less refined, and rather than being steamed are cooked in a very different way.

The dumplings are made with a dough that has a little yeast, so the skins are thicker and softer. Inside, the usual filling of pork and soup gelatin (recipes for the pork filling can be found here, and for the soup gelatin here) is tucked in tightly with the topknot of the dumpling underneath. Then the dumplings are sprinkled with chopped scallions and either white or black sesame seeds and left to prove for a short time.

Streetside, the dumplings are closely packed onto a large, shallow griddle, often side by side with potsticker dumplings guotie because they’re cooked the same way. The griddle has a thin layer of oil in the bottom with more oil poured over the top, and as the dumplings cook the vendor grasps the edge of the skillet with a sturdy pair of pliers and gives it a spin to stop them from sticking. 
Five or six minutes later he will pour in a bowl of water and quickly place a heavy wooden lid on the griddle to steam the soft tops of the dumplings. Then they’re ready to eat!
Usually sold in a tray of four (4 yuan, 65 cents), the best accompaniment is black vinegar to cut through the oil.
Most shengjianbao street stalls also have seating, because the traditional way to eat them is accompanied by a bowl of beef brisket soup. Shanghai has several very famous shengjianbao restaurants, the most well known of which is Yang’s Fry Dumplings (multiple locations, including directly across Huanghe Lu from Jia Jia Tang Bao, a xiaolongbao institution – you can pay homage to both in one go). 
I’m going to go out on a limb here and risk being shot down by every dumpling lover who ever visited Shanghai and say I don’t like Yang’s dumplings. They’re too oily, with meagre filling, and I get the feeling they trade way too much on their fame and spend too little time making sure the food is good.
My favourite shengjianbao restaurant is also Shanghai’s oldest – Da Hu Chun. The menu runs to exactly three items – shengjianbao (5.5 yuan for four), curried beef brisket soup (6 yuan/bowl) and vermicelli noodle soup (7 yuan/bowl). The shengjianbao are fried to a very thorough crisp on the base, the top is soft and flavoursome and the filling is hands down the best in Shanghai – smooth and just a little sweet, it goes perfectly with the salty beef soup. A must-visit.

Da Hu Chun

71 Yunnan Nan Lu

大壶春
云南南路71号

Open 7 days for breakfast, lunch and dinner
7.30am-2pm, 3pm  -8pm

Thirty Shanghai Street Foods!

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup


Living in the Shadow of the Great Wall

There’s nothing less than awesome about the Great Wall. Its size, its scale, its sheer magnificent impressiveness. I love the way the wall ribbons over the crest of the hills, anchored at intervals by stout square signal towers, and winds into the distance. You could walk along it forever and never tire of the view. 
The last time I saw the wall was at the end of a long winter, the trees bare and the ground still dry and barren. Not a leaf of green broke through the pale wintery landscape, but here and there fragile white peach blossoms were beginning to show, and as we walked through the orchards it began to snow softly. It was quite magical.
Last weekend I visited for the second time, just as a heatwave gripped Beijing. The temperature soared to forty degrees and Beijing’s sidewalks shimmered with radiating heat as tourists, red-faced and sweating, stood fanning themselves with the free hotel pamphlets given out by fast-moving hotel touts. Men with boxes of icypoles roved through the crowds at Tianamen Square, calling their wares “Iced treats! One kuai! One kuai! One kuai!” Moving even short distances led to rivers of sweat and mountains of bad temper. I couldn’t wait to get out of the city and up into the hills, and the Wall.
Driving from Beijing north to the village of Mutianyu the most noticeable difference was the blanket of green. Full birch trees lined the road and by tiny rivers stands of weeping willow drooped green to the ground. Fruit orchards spread in every direction, the road punctuated by umbrella-covered stalls selling gold peaches, ruby plums, garnet cherries and plump orange apricots laid out in appealing baskets and wooden boxes. I’d entered a brilliant cornucopia of fertile verdant farmland.
Then the Wall. It rises above the village of Mutianyu, now one of the most popular sites from which to visit the wall, and a short walk brings you to the chairlifts lifting you effortlessly and conveniently up onto the wall itself. In the height of summer the hillsides are covered in a thick foliage which creeps right up to the wall itself, obscuring parts of it from view.
I love that Great Wall. The broad, hot stone path along the top. The cool, dark sanctuary of the heavy-stoned signal towers. That feeling of living history. The human sacrfice endured to build it. All that it symbolises, both good and bad. I culd walk along it for days, sleep on it under the stars, and marvel at it endlessly.
But the oppressive and intense heat and the crowds finally overcame my desire to hang out on top of the Wall all afternoon, so we came down to stay overnight in the neighbouring village of Bei Gou. 
Bei Gou sits below Signal Tower Number Eighteen on the Mutianyu stretch of the Wall. At that point the green hills give way to sheer-sided rocky mountains with the Wall gripping improbably to the highest jagged edge of the ridge. On the north side of the signal tower the steep treeless slope broadens out just below the tree line into the green valley housing Bei Gou.
The hills above the village are covered with stands of chestnut trees bursting with bunches of pale yellow pipecleaner flowers on the tips of their branches. The village’s homes number less than fifty, built with local stone and red brick, and roofed in traditional curved black terracotta tiles. The low, simple houses face south to catch the winter sun and are fronted by fertile vegetable gardens full of corn and beans, shaded by peach and apricot trees.
That night I fell asleep to the sound of crickets, and dogs barking in the next valley, and the sweet warm smell of the end of a hot day. Early next morning I took a walk through the village. I wondered what it must be like to live always under the shadow of that iconic wall, to see it high on the hill each day, and to be just far enough away from the main tourist drag to have to continue farming for a living. It must be like living in the shadows in more ways than one.
At the top of the village a big old gnarled walnut tree, bursting with green leaf and already laden with the smooth round green pods in which the walnuts are growing, shades the path. I stopped to talk to a farmer resting under its branches who told me many of the young people have left the village for work elsewhere, and only old people and very small children remain. This seems true as I wander further through the village – there is a school without children, and only a few elderly people sitting near the lone store playing cards and chatting. I ask the farmer if he ever makes the climb up to the signal tower. “What? No, it’s too far, more than an hour’s hard uphill walk, and what for?”

I walk from the walnut tree down to the store, a delightfully ramshackle affair with a curtain for a door and a haphazard system of stock display. Packets of crackers spill from boxes on the floor and bottles of shampoo line up next to the soy sauce and vinegar. When I ask for water the owner, a woman in her sixties, tells me to take a bottle out of the chest freezer near the door. Anticipating a long cold drink I open the lid to find the freezer hasn’t been turned on and the water is the same temperature as the jars of blackbean paste it sits amongst. Warm.
Outside, several card games are being intensely fought and those who aren’t playing are watching and commenting on every move. They’re all pretty lively for a bunch of elderly farmers, but I suddenly realize that other than my own children I’m the youngest person in the village by a long way. Where are all the young people, and the children? 
I hope they’re all at work, or perhaps at school in a bigger town nearby. Perhaps. Or perhaps the farmer was right and Bei Gou, like so many villages in rural China, has been bled of its young folk, seeking fortune in the cities. Still, those remaining seem to be having a terrific time gossiping and playing.

I stopped to chat to this lovely eighty year old, who was just sending a text message to a friend. Perhaps to invite her down to the store for a game of cards?
Not wanting to be overly nostalgic about the tough life that farming offers, there are some encouraging signs that Bei Gou’s prospects are on the rise. The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu has restored several homes for holiday rentals, and has expanded their Brickyard Inn at the entrance to the village. The village roads look recently tarred, and there is fresh construction happening here and there. So perhaps the shadow of the Great Wall will eventually shorten, and the young people will return.

The Secret Life of a Sherpa’s Courier

Little Wang, also known as Harry, sits in the interview room slightly stiffly and more than a little anxiously, wearing the trademark orange and black uniform with a running man on the pocket, and (a little bizarrely for an indoor interview) he’s also wearing a black motorbike helmet, a black satchel held tightly across his body, and a giant photograph ID badge on a lanyard around his neck. He looks ready to spring out of his chair and on to his motorbike at any second, and also looks like he’d really welcome the opportunity to avoid being interviewed.
Little Wang is the newest employee at Sherpa’s, Shanghai’s food order and delivery service, and in the afternoon lull between the lunch rush and dinner I’m at their headquarters in downtown Shanghai hoping to get the inside story on our favourite food couriers.
Every expat living in Shanghai knows Sherpa’s – the orange book stuffed with menus from two hundred restaurants across the city, and the English-speaking phone operators who will order food on your behalf from any one of those restaurants, dispatch the order to a courier, and have him deliver the food hot to your door within 45 minutes, along with a bottle of wine if you’d like one. Want to order from multiple restaurants at once? No problem. Want to order nothing but a cold milkshake? Also no problem.
Sherpas is so well loved that when a friend asks “What are you cooking for dinner?” you need only answer “Sherpa’s” and she automatically knows what kind of a hellish day you’ve had. Sherpas will miraculously take care of dinner. And even though they had nothing to do with the cooking of the food we’ve all come to regard those guys in black and orange as a type of domestic Chinese angel, appearing at our doors with hot meals for a delivery fee of just 15 rmb ($2.30). 

Back to Little Wang, who has relaxed just enough to undo the chin strap under his helmet. He’s a fresh-faced twenty four year old who arrived in Shanghai three months ago from Lanzhou in far-off Gansu province, always memorable to me as the home of Lanzhou lamian hand-pulled noodles. 
He studied to be a Physical Education teacher at university, but after graduating and before ever working as a teacher something pulled him towards Shenzhen, the glittering Special Economic Zone in China’s south that lures young people from all over China, wrings out their dreams with menial, low paid work, then spits them back out, often poorer than when they arrived. 
Little Wang lasted three months there in a sales job before making the move to Shanghai. He started at Sherpa’s within days of arriving, and yes, he might be overqualified for work as a motorcycle courier, but he senses an opportunity at Sherpas to start from the ground up in a foreign-owned enterprise, something he considers beneficial. 
When I ask him the funniest thing that’s happened to him so far, he says that a lot of foreigners on the street call out ‘Hello Sherpa’s!’ to him when he drives past. That’s just silly. I press him for something funnier and am rewarded with a long story about an escaping cat. No naked ladies answering the door then? None.
Sitting next to Little Wang in the interview room is his group leader Master Xu (or as I like to think of him, shifu), a Sherpa’s veteran with ten years of service under his belt. Impressive, given that Sherpa’s was only founded in 1999 by American Mark Secchia. Master Xu is an easygoing guy in his thirties with a little plumpness around the edges and a crinkle-eyed smile, and unlike Little Wang doesn’t insist on wearing his helmet and satchel indoors. 
He works six days out of every seven, with four twelve hour shifts in a row, then two days covering the busy evening rush from four until ten. When the company switches to electric motorbikes in the next year he’s worried about how it will affect the speed of his deliveries because, after all, speed is a big influence on his take home pay. The more deliveries he makes per hour, the better his pay, and he can make around 6,000 yuan per month including tips (about $1000), a pay much higher than many office jobs. He needs it because he has two children, a girl and a boy, to take care of.
I figure that after ten years Master Xu must have seen it all, delivering to thousands of homes all over Shanghai, but he insists he’s never seen or heard of anything untoward. Ever. Although there was one time, making an evening delivery in late October that the door was opened to reveal four of his colleagues asleep on some foreign guy’s sofa, their helmets pulled down over their eyes. Before his eyes popped out of his head, and as he hurriedly thought about what to do next, the four revealed they were, in fact, not Sherpa’s couriers but had borrowed the uniforms for a halloween party.
When I asked Master Xu about how much he makes in tips he was very open. Partly he gets a bonus for delivering consistently on time and for not losing or dropping any of the food, and partly he relies on customers’ tips, but these have steadily dropped from about 2,000 rmb/month ($300) two years ago to around 500rmb/month ($80) now. His theory is that many foreigners initially think tipping is expected in China, and when they discover it’s not expected they simply stop. I tell Master Xu he needs to deliver to my house more often because there is apparently a very generous Australian man living there. 
After the interview, I get to see the rest of Sherpa’s HQ, the massive nerve centre co-ordinating 2000 food deliveries every day. It’s nothing short of impressive with banks of computers and dozens of people just waiting for someone like me to get really hungry while they are also really short of time, or cooking skills, or both. 
So wherever you live in the world, I dearly hope you have a Sherpa’s to make your life easier, so on Sunday nights you can put your feet up and order in a whole Peking duck, or salmon pasta, or Nepalese food, or a single delicious tiramisu. And don’t forget to tip the courier!

My Stress Remedy: Jade Buddhas, Red Lanterns

I’m stressed. Now, you don’t get to be a fully paid-up member of the College of Emergency Medicine without a fairly high stress threshold (‘Doctor! Bed 4 is bleeding out all over the floor!’ Me: ‘Stay calm. Apply pressure.’) (past colleagues – stop sniggering). But if there’s one thing that makes me stressed it’s having too much mental activity going on at once. Magazine deadlines. New projects popping up unexpectedly just as my plate is overflowing. Once-in-a-lifetime adventures to plan. Give me an old fashioned life-threatening haemorrhage anyday.
There  are five million things on my mental To Do List before I go camping for the next six months, and only sixteen days left in which to do them. Sixteen! Not enough time to do all the things I want to do, and definitely not enough time to do things I actually need to do. There are temples in Shanghai I’ve never visited! Street foods I haven’t yet documented! We need to buy a solar-powered light! The campervan needs cool yet slightly retro home-made curtains! STAT!
When I sat my medical specialist exams years ago (a grinding two day ordeal for which most of us study for a whole year, foregoing friends, family, books, movies, and any social life, and losing hair, a lot of weight, or marriages in the process) my good friend said, as we walked into the exam – 
‘A year ago I wanted five more months to study. A month ago I wanted five more days. Yesterday I would have been happy with just five more hours. Today? Five more minutes. Please! Just five more minutes!’ as he broke into a sweat and turned pale. He passed first time, by the way.
That exam nearly killed us. Our brains felt like the overstuffed third drawer down in your kitchen – you keep pushing things in the front, but other, equally important things like your garlic press are falling out the back and behind the cabinet, never to be seen again.
And so it is here – if I could just have five more hours in each day, and five more pairs of hands to help everything will probably be just fine. My husband says everyone in the house needs to just calm down and prioritise a bit. Especially me. Particularly me, according to the rest of the family. 
So I’m thinking calming thoughts, and when that alone doesn’t work what I really helps is visiting a calm place like a temple. I’m not really what you would consider spiritual, but there is something about Chinese temples I find calming. It’s someting to do with leaving the busy noise and intensity of the street behind and stepping over a heavy stone lintel into the coolness and sudden peace, with the distant sound of the monks chanting. 
The Jade Buddha Temple is Shanghai’s most popular Buddhist temple, yet always manages to feel serene and restful when you visit. The temple has a series of interlocking courtyards, each one taking you further and further from the madding crowds and gently guiding you slowing through high, darkened chambers where tall golden Buddhas sit cross-legged and implacable. Slight breezes shift the edges of the long embroidered silk banners hanging from the ceiling under the light of dozens of red tasselled lanterns. 


Passing to the back of the chamber and over another tall stone lintel, you step out into the bright light of another courtyard, filled with the gentle sweet smoke of incense. A monk in long mustard robes and cloth-soled shoes moves quietly across the courtyard.
All around the courtyard the lions, bells and heavy iron lanterns have been tied with red votive ribbons, wishes for luck, health and prosperity.

And where is the famed Jade Buddha? In fact, there are several, brought from Burma in the 1880s by an abbott. The most prized sits in its own heavily decorated chamber, a translucent white jade Buddha on a golden lotus throne, distant and lovely behind a velvet rope. You can’t approach it, you can’t photograph it, but as people pass by it a hush of reverence descends.

In other darkened chambers sit the many other Buddhas – golden, jade, marble – all masterpieces of craftsmanship.

Whether you’re Buddhist or not it is a beautiful place to visit. When I leave the final chamber along a long covered corridor, I look up to see hundreds of round, red paper lanterns hanging in rows from the ceiling. I love red lanterns and never grow tired of seeing them bobbing gently in the air. And now I feel calm and cheery. 
Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple

Yù Fó Sì
玉佛寺

170 Anyuan Road  Putuo, Shanghai
普陀区安远路170号

Open 7 days



Saucepan Lid Noodles 镇江锅盖面

It’s the Holy Grail for foodies, that rarely attained combination of a tasty, memorable, inexpensive meal in a place that no-one else seems to have discovered except you and the local neighourhood customers, who all want to keep it that way. Sorry about that.

Thanks to a Sunday afternoon walk with Sue Anne Tay (who owns the great Shanghai Street Stories website and knows the old neighbourhood of Hongkou like the back of her hand) I was introduced to this noodle shop on Kunshan Lu, where they served the best ban mian, noodles mixed with sauce. On the day we visited the taste of their Zhenjiang noodles blew me away with spicy complexity, and when Sue Anne told me they make fresh noodles every day on the strange wooden contraption at the front of the shop with a long green bamboo pole attached, I wanted to see it.

Sadly, that hot afternoon the noodle-maker had finished for the day and the other staff were taking advantage of the lull between lunch and dinner to drink beers and nap on the wooden platform above the kitchen, shielded only by the overhang of the banner menu. There was no noodle making to be seen.

So yesterday I returned, and wouldn’t you know it, I arrived mid-batch just as the noodle maker was bouncing up and down on the bamboo pole like a teeter-totter, squeaking like mad.

What was it all about? The noodle dough is made from buckwheat flour, and just like the Japanese version, soba, the dough needs to be rolled with a heavy hand and layered before being cut with a very sharp knife into ribbon-like noodles. Doing it this way with a bamboo pole seems like way more fun than sweating away with a rolling pin, and the noodle maker bounced up and down for an hour until all the dough had been worked.
Once the noodles are cut, they’re cooked a handful at a time in a boiling pot of water, then served one of two ways – as tang mian – soup noodles with broth, or ban mian – mixed with a combination of sauces. 
Try this amazing sauce combination – chili oil, sesame seeds, roast peanuts, soft boiled peanuts, coriander, roasted chilies, finely chopped pickles, nubbins of spiced pork meat and tiny cubes of fiery spiced potato. These noodles – with a nutty bite thanks to the buckwheat – will knock your socks off. You can also add toppings like pork chops, meatballs, tea eggs or spicy meat if you need a bigger meal.

I still haven’t explained the quirky name of the noodle shop, Zhenjiang guo gai mian 镇江锅盖面, or saucepan lid noodles. Do you remember Emperor Qianlong? He lived about three hundred years ago and according to my limited knowledge did nothing much but travel up and down the countryside coaxing unexpectedly amazing cooking out of humble circumstances.

First he cajoled a peasant into delivering the extraordinary and tasty Qianlong Yu Tou Tang (Emperor Qianlong’s fish head soup), a culinary revelation I experienced in Hangzhou. For a three hundred year old recipe involving fish heads it’s pretty damn fine.

Then there’s this one, Saucepan Lid Noodles.

The story goes that Emperor Qianlong stopped on his horse one day at the house of a peasant in Zhenjiang town, and asked for some local buckwheat noodles. In his embarrassment and consternation at having the emperor suddenly drop in on him, the peasant got completely flustered and tried to put the small saucepan lid on the big pot of noodles, and it promptly fell in. To his amazement the noodles tasted better than before and the emperor, impressed, bestowed the name of guō gài miàn 锅盖面 or saucepan lid noodles.

I like the sound of this Emperor Qianlong. He just rides his horse everywhere, has peasants rustle up ordinary food (which turns extraordinary under his imperial influence), then bestows special names to make the peasants feel better for dropping lids in cooking pots. I think I need to find out what other dishes he’s been involved in and taste those.

I quite fancy myself as a modern day Emperor Qianlong you know, roaming the countryside to bring you great noodles with interesting names. Just without the horse. And the mastery of spoken Chinese. And the robes.

Zhenjiang Saucepan Lid Noodles

Zhenjiang Guo Gai Mian 
184 Kunshan Lu, Near Zhapu Lu, 
Hongkou District Shanghai
镇江锅盖面
上海虹口区昆山路184号近乍浦路
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner
Noodles 6-10 yuan/bowl, extra charge for pork chops, tea eggs or spicy meat toppings.


See How Easily You Can Camp in China!

So I thought camping in China was supposed to be difficult, right? Isn’t that what I’ve been telling you? 
We spent last weekend taking our recently hired Great Chinese Campervan for a test drive and I can tell you that after two days, ten hours of driving, four hundred renminbi in tolls, a sleepless night on a bed the width of a plank, and one minor accident (no casualties), I honestly don’t know what I was worried about. 
Forget the doomsayers. Road camping in China is a piece of cake. 
Here’s how it’s done:
1. Find a campsite:
Happy Hipster Campers. They could do with a feed.
Shanghai has no camping grounds, not a single one, so I knew we’d have to accomplish our test drive weekend further afield. Actually, there are only thirty functional camping grounds in all of China. Thirty. That’s one for every….let me see…..43 million people. Not likely to be crowded then.
The closest camping ground to Shanghai is in Suzhou, only a couple of hours away, and it certainly has a beguiling website full of soft, clean city types promising all kinds of comfortable camping options. The campground – less of a nature reserve, and more like an adult playground – lists attractions such as: 
Horse riding! Fishing! Go karting! Simulated warfare! Outdoor KTV! 
Now I don’t know about you, but I find the sound of intermittent gunfire quite soothing when I’m trying to get to sleep. But I absolutely draw the line at open air karaoke. 
So we needed to find somewhere else, somewhere quiet, somewhere off the beaten track (because there are so very few campsites, those who do camp tend to find a clear spot of ground and set up there, and it’s still uncommon enough to be quite acceptable).

Mr Chen, who owns the Great Chinese Campervan, suggested we hang out in the carpark of his RV rental business for the weekend, turning all the campervan gadgets on and off to see how they worked. It was a tempting offer, but I suspect he was just worried about letting us out onto the open road. After all, he knows we’ve only had our Chinese Driving Licence for six weeks. But I wanted to get out into the countryside and hear birds. Not in cages. And no traffic.

So we picked a spot randomly on one of our maps, based on the fact that the villages in that spot seemed further apart so there was a slim chance there might be a length of road with no people at all. An extraordinary concept for this part of China. 
2. Plot your route:
The Minhang Interchange, Shanghai. We survived it.

Shanghai is a mind-bogglingly large city. Huge. And we live right in the very, very heart of that tangled congested metropolis, a place with a population density similar to Sao Paulo or Mumbai. Just getting to the outskirts of Shanghai can take two hours on a good day, through the kind of spaghetti junction interchanges and confusing ring roads that would send any normal person insane.
Getting to a quiet little spot in the countryside means driving for several hours through this choked traffic via any one of fifty different routes offered up by Google maps. All of them unattractive. And don’t even think about using a paper map, because as soon as they’re printed they’re already out of date, such is the relentless pace of development and new roads.
Personally, I find Chinese maps like the one above waaay too easy to read, so as Chief Navigator I like to increase the degree of route planning difficulty by suggesting a few wrong turns that require reversing down one-way streets the wrong way or off bridge on-ramps. Drivers like a challenge.

3. Start Your Engine:
This, theoretically, should be the simplest of all these steps. Mr Chen had clearly said:

Put the key in the ignition.
Press the black button to activate the power.
Turn the key to start. 

But when we sat in the driver’s cab of our campervan the dashboard was lined with rows of black buttons, some of which had once been labelled with Chinese characters but were all now invisibly rubbed away by many fingers over many years. And when we tried the above sequence with all of the different black buttons, none of them worked. The engine, as they say, was kaput.
The only non-black button, a very large, bright red dangerous looking button was clearly labelled 严禁按压 or “Pressing Button Strictly Prohibited.” 
God knows what it did. Emptied the fuel tank. Short-circuited the electrics. Ejected the driver through the roof. Who knows.

But after only four minutes of not being able to start the engine, guess what my husband did. Yes.

And then we had one of those predictable domestics no one ever wins.
‘Did you just push that red button?’
‘No’
‘Why would you push the red button?? Our ONLY instruction was ‘Don’t push the red button’!’
‘How will we know what it does if we don’t push it?’
‘WHAAAT? You couldn’t hold back? What if the engine blew up??’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Ridiculous? Now the engine’s broken, and you pushed the red button that broke it.’
‘THAT is ridiculous. It was already broken when I pushed the red button. The red button doesn’t mean anything.’
‘Oh yeah. That’s why Mr Chen, who neither speaks nor writes English, went to all the trouble of placing a sticky note over the top with a MESSAGE FOR YOU in ENGLISH. What did it say?’
‘I took it off.’
‘I know you did. But what did it say?’
‘Um….I forgot’
Here’s what it said:
Bit ambiguous, right? 
4. Get driving. Try not to get killed.

Shanghai elevated highway, 8 floors off the ground. Helpful lane division barrier.

So, two hours later we were still sitting parked outside our house in Shanghai while various men stopped and helped, the local noodle guys took interior tours of the campervan, and bought our kids icecream. Still the damn thing wouldn’t start. Dozens of phone calls were made, lots of futile attempts were made to follow the engine-starting instructions, tempers were frayed, blame was apportioned, and then suddenly –  it just started. Just. Like. That.
It was pretty exciting to finally be on our way, but now the real difficulties began. I think you may already suspect the major challenges of driving on Chinese roads – but there are two important things to know.

1. Imagine drawing an invisible horizontal line across your headlights and continuing it to the left and right. You are responsible for everything in front of that line, no matter how many rules it breaks or how stupid it is.

The drivers behind you are responsible for everything in front of their line, including you. So if you suddenly brake, change lanes without indicating, or reverse on the highway, it is up to the guys behind you to swerve, brake or get out of the way. And if they don’t – their fault, not yours.

And when that wedding entourage of six red Audis in front of you suddenly careens across your lane with the passengers hanging out of the window filming the whole mess, then it’s your responsibility to brake and swerve like a demon.

2. Everybody breaks the rules, but they do so in an entirely predictable way. For example, everyone continues to go through a red light for three seconds after it has turned red. If you stop on amber it will create mayhem. May-hem.

5. Find a camping spot:

Amazingly, once we moved from big highway to smaller and smaller roads and headed into the hills south of the pretty town of Shaoxing, this little culvert in the midst of a lush green bamboo forest  presented itself. Across the road was a small tree-fringed reservoir with water of the most intense (and admittedly slightly unnatural) jade green. It was perfect. 
The culvert was shielded from the road on the downhill side, and farmers coming up the hill in their lawnmower tuk-tuks were unable to stop on the slope, so no-one bothered us.
Or perhaps no one bothered us because we were camping directly beside a grave.
Either way, for ten long quiet hours we listened to nothing but the music of nature – frogs and crickets, and the rustling of wild bamboo in a breeze. 

It was beautiful. We tested out our generator, and all the lights, and everything that opened and closed. We played scrabble until we ran out of battery power and went happily to bed.

6. Get home safely without breaking the campervan:

The next morning, buoyed by our overnight success at failing to attract any attention from the local Public Security Bureau, we set off back to Shanghai. 
But as any seasoned Everest adventurer will tell you, it’s the climb down the mountain that’s the most dangerous.
Driving into the pretty town of Tingyuan, sun shining, we noticed a square entry arch across the roadway,  decoratively  trimmed in black and yellow diagonal stripes. There was an outdoor market up ahead which diverted our attention when suddenly an almighty BOOOMM!! ricocheted through the vehicle. 
My husband slammed on the brakes and I swore like a navvy under my breath. We both thought we’d hit something, like a motorbike, and felt sick to the stomach.
We got out of the car and looked around. No motorbike. No bicycle. No wheelbarrow we’d run over. No one lying injured on the road.
Then we both looked behind us at the decorative entry arch, which now clearly presented itself as the 2.5 metre height-limited warning barrier it so obviously was. There was a scraped-off area on the underside of the cross bar where we had hit it at full speed. 
We looked up at the front of our 2.8 metre high campervan where the airconditioning unit now stood on a very strange, loose angle. And a look passed between us that said ‘I won’t tell Mr Chen if you don’t.’
And we didn’t.
In fact, despite swiping an archway and getting lost several times and nearly being killed by the crazy wedding entourage in red Audis, I consider our test drive an unqualified success, don’t you? Bring on the real fun. Twenty-five days to go!

Shanghai Street Food #29 Zongzi 粽子 Sticky Rice Wrapped in Bamboo Leaf

Every season brings a special street food of its own to Shanghai, like the bing tang shan zha of mid-winter, the ruby red skin of those tiny round hawthorns peeking through a crunchy layer of crystal sugar. Mid-summer for me means the arrival of zòngzi 粽子, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in bright green bamboo leaves. 

Zongzi are eaten year round, but if you walk through Shanghai’s streets and markets right now you’ll see enormous shallow dishes of the green pyramid-shaped pockets everywhere and people sitting outside in the warm June weather on tiny wooden stools making them, because June is the month of the annual Dragon Boat Festival (June 23 in 2012), and zongzi are the special food for this particular festival. 

Like all festive foods, zongzi have a great story behind them. Let me tell it to you.

Long, long ago there lived a Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who was also a loyal confidante and minister of the King of Chu. Qu Yuan was wrongly accused of treachery and spent twenty miserable and melancholic years in exile, lamenting the fate of his beloved country and writing exquisite poetry. 


Swift jade-green dragons, birds with plumage gold,
I harnessed to the whirlwind, and behold,
At daybreak from the land of plane-trees grey,

I came to paradise ere close of day.


from The Lament by Qu Yuan

Increasingly unhappy, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the river and his devastated supporters searched the waters in vain for his body, throwing small parcels of rice into the water to prevent the fish, serpents and underworld dragons from taking it. Each year on the anniversary of his death people continued to throw offerings of rice into the river as a tribute, and zongzi 粽子 came to represent these offerings.

Making zongzi is considered an important skill because that dry sticky rice, coated with a little dark soy sauce, is the last thing you think could be neatly wrapped up in a leaf. It’s like trying to tie a pocket of sand in a folded petal. A high degree of manual dexterity coupled with many years of practice is needed to make sure that tightly tied cone of rice doesn’t fall apart during the two hours of cooking time.
If you’d like a recipe and full instructions you can find them here

Cooked zongzi for sale, to reheat at home – different coloured strings for different flavours.


The fillings for zongzi, along with the sticky rice, range from savoury juicy pieces of marinated fatty pork (xiān ròu zòng), to egg yolk (dànhuáng zòng) or sweet fillings such as redbean and jujube (chìdòu mìzǎo zongzi). 

Everyone has a favourite kind! 
Once opened the bamboo leaf peels back to reveal a steaming parcel of soft sticky rice, flavoured by both the bamboo leaf and the filling. Tasty! Zongzi can be bought for 2-5 yuan (30-75 cents) each, depending on the filling and the size.




More Street Foods Here:

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup