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Yu Gardens: A Surprising Place to Find Something Good to Eat

When was the last time you ate food worth remembering, let alone writing about, at a major tourist trap? Shanghai has a stack of terrific tourist traps, like The Pearl Tower, The Bund, and Yu Gardens – all beautiful, and all famous for something other than their food. 
Escaping the pressing, elbowing crowds one day at Yu Gardens, I literally stumbled upon this food-court style eatery by accident. It was to be my lucky day. As I climbed the stairs from the ground floor entry, where an uninspiring selection of fried snacks was on display; I reached the upper floor, where in all honesty, the situation looked worse. The vast space was occupied by rows of bench seats and orange plastic tables bolted to the floor, the windows overlooking the exquisite Ming Dynasty Huxintin Teahouse covered in some kind of blue adhesive coating and locked against rogue window-openers like myself. Along the far wall was a row of serving hatches, with a cafeteria style pile of greasy plastic trays.
Disheartened but starving, and expecting nothing more than some modestly edible and grossly over-priced noodles, I took a tray and walked past the cashier seated at the entrance to the rows of hatches, expecting to find very little of interest. In fact, the very opposite occurred, and I did one lap, then another, then a third, trying to limit what I’d like to try to only three or four dishes. Everything looked fresh and delicious, the steam billowing from the kitchen behind the hatches carried scents of ginger, pork and seafood, and the sizzle of wok frying.
Let me take you on a short tour of the goods on offer: I didn’t eat all the foods pictued here, but I certainly put in a sterling effort and hope to complete tasting everything on my next visit. 
The seafood hatch. Steamed crab with ginger and chili. Whole crispy fried scampi. Velvety seafood congee.
More crabs, a different variety this time, simply steamed. Chicken barbecued on lemongrass skewers. Pork wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Jumbo freshwater snails, shells blackly glistening. Next to those, Shanghai’s own treasure, xiaolongbao – steamed dumplings filled with soup, pork, and crab meat.
Gigantic xiaolongbao, complete with straw to suck up the soup, each in its own steamer basket. How gorgeous are they?
Yet more crabs, alongside Shanghai specialty fried nian gao (chewy rounds of rice noodle fried with greens), and guotie (pot-sticker pork dumplings).
The ‘desert’ section – these deep purple unmelting ‘ice-creams’ are in fact sweetened yam paste. At least they adorned them with sweetly smelling golden yellow osmanthus flowers, my favourite scent. Next to them, diamonds of translucent almond jelly.

The dimsum (or dianxin) station had flaky durian pastries, sesame balls, spring rolls, and dozens of little steamed dumplings holding shrimp, pork, and chive and peanut fillings.
The egg custard tarts looked like a particularly good way to finish off the meal, and I was right. They were great.
And that, dear friends, is just a sampling of the many, many foods you may wish to try, with no dish costing more than 20 yuan ($3). My meal of four dishes and a freshly squeezed watermelon juice cost 55 yuan ($8). Unbelievable. Should you be visiting Shanghai anytime soon, here’s what the cafeteria looks like from the outside, just opposite the Huxintin Teahouse.
(Should you know of other great tourist trap eateries around Shanghai, please let me know!)

Song Yun Tower Xiao Chi Restaurant
2nd floor, Song Yun Tower
Yu Gardens, Shanghai
Open daily for lunch and dinner

Yu Gardens

After writing about all the things you can do around the Yu Gardens, like visit the Ghost market , have a personalised chop made, spend up big at the Commodities Market, or enjoy looking at the lanterns , I realised that I had never written about the gardens themselves.  
The gardens once belonged to a city official, Governor Pan Yunduan, who built Yu Yuan in 1577 as a quiet escape from his busy official life. He built a garden of some thirty pavilions, with intertwining ponds and paths set between majestic gingkos and magnolia trees. Every pavilion faces a different idyllic view, and the garden has many secret corners to explore between its dragon walls. Some of the original trees survive, and are magnificently ancient.
Four hundred years ago a city of merchants sprang up outside the garden walls, selling jade, pearls and silk. Now when you arrive at Yu Gardens you walk through a maze of ancient buildings, still housing merchants and merchandise of all kinds, and some restaurants.
I love the Yu Gardens – they’re ancient and ornate, full of weird rocks and aged trees, and home to hundreds of overfed carp. It’s absolutely essential that you arrive soon after opening time (8.30am) to take advantage of the quietness, and to get a feel for the peacefulness that the gardens can bring to a city full of people and noise. 

Toilet Timing, Yu Gardens



This photo says so many things about life in China, I barely know where to begin. Let me explain. 

This is taken inside the main ladies toilet in the Yu Gardens (Yu Yuan), Shanghai’s Number 1 tourist attraction. Each door has a digital clock telling you how long, in minutes and seconds, since the person inside it entered that cubicle. When you exit, and someone else enters, they reset to zero.
Why? Well, queueing in ladies toilets in China is unheard of. If you’re in more of a hurry, just bustle and shove your way to the front, elbowing those with more patience and bigger bladders out of the way. But this toilet has more than 20 cubicles….which one do you shove your way forward to? This is where the clocks come in. You take a look, then decide…..am I better off standing in front of the door with 4min45, or 3sec? Well, the 4:45 person is surely about to be finished. On the other hand, maybe they’ve got the Shanghai Daily in there, or they just like sitting. Alternately, the 0:04 person could be just 0:03 away from a flush! Or not. The suspense kills me.  I never know which one to choose so I have a panic attack and leave.
So, as you can see, the clocks make bugger-all sense, but they are technological. They look flash, and modern, although it’s a shame the plumbing is still so ancient you have to throw the toilet paper in a rubbish bin.  And they do have a communist Big-Brother type feel about them. ‘I should hurry up and finish my business because everyone knows how long I’ve been in here!’ Except that it’s more like…’Finally! A quiet spot away from the hordes……might just have a short nap while I’m here……Zzzzzzzzzzz’
So, I hope that explains a few things. 

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Tiger Tiger

There are tigers all over town this week, what with Chinese New Year approaching. The traditional tiger is a cute little fellow, with a stylized face that looks more a muppet than a man-eating carnivore. I was intrigued by this massive version at Yu Yuan. What is it made of? What is it for? But as I came closer I realised it was a delicious blend of traditionalism and capitalism. Pepsi anyone??

I Love Lanterns


Chinese New Year is fast aproaching (Feb 14, Year of the Tiger), and with it comes the annual Lantern Festival, Yuanxiao, on the date of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year, (Feb 28). Yu Gardens is the lantern epicentre of Shanghai, and they’re springing up left, right and centre in all shapes and sizes. Now I love a lantern, as everyone knows, so I was thrilled to bring home three flat packed ones from the Commodities market yesterday. Easy peasy thought I, just whip them out of the cellophane envelope and pull the little string and voila! lanterns x 3 would appear fully formed and ready to hang in my window.

Oh but I am in China now and every day brings a small but useful challenge. So out of the bag came 68 pieces of red and gold cardboard, lots of tassels, a hundred small wire rings and no instructions. Not even in Chinese. So as I am swearing and cursing I am imagining whole Chinese families constructing these lanterns with the same ease and grace with which my family constructs our plastic Christmas tree every December. And in my imagination they are also swearing and cursing, just like us.