Street signs in English, not-so-spicy cuisine, locals who don’t stare, contemporary art galleries, modern youth hostels and even interpreter hot lines for cabdrivers who don’t speak English. For independent travelers about to start an expedition into the huge, mysterious nation of China, I have some advice: stop in Shanghai and take a deep breath.
Not literally, at least without checking the air quality index; the smog can be brutal. But do stick around for a few days — as I did before I set off up the Yangtze — to ease into Chinese ways in the city where expatriates have flocked since the First Opium War ended in 1842. Here, strangers are less strange.
Even on $50 a day, Shanghai is perfectly feasible — once you accept you will not be taking a sightseeing boat along the Bund, eat in fancy restaurants or stay in luxury (or even midrange) hotels. That’s because much of the city is yours free or, in the case of public transportation, hostels and noodle shops, close to it.
That includes the Shanghai Museum, which is free. It also provided a lesson in the sort of friendliness I’d encounter on the rest of my trip. Just as I’d placed my passport, wallet and camera through the museum’s X-ray machine, two guards pointed me to the coat check, signaling they would watch my valuables. Returning two minutes later, I was outraged to find them intently leafing through my passport.
“We like your passport!” one exclaimed, beaming. My cultural-disconnect alert sounded, just in time. “Thanks,” I said. “Lots of countries, but my first day in China.” I feebly joked that I would be fatter when I left. “You like Chinese food!” the other exclaimed. Smiles all around.
It was as if China were tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Psst, we do things differently here.”
I found a more historical lesson inside the halls of the museum, a powerful reminder of just how old and complex Chinese civilization is. I gazed at an almost-4,000-year-old battle ax and ancient instruments in the bronze gallery, gawked at stone heads of Lokapala from the Tang dynasty in the sculpture section and tried to come to grips with the gorgeousness of the porcelain collection. Finally, I headed to the top floor to see the traditional costumes and art from China’s minority ethnic groups: the Kirgiz, the Uighur, the Bai.
But Shanghai is also into newer creations; luckily, just as budget-friendly. M50, an enclave of galleries in former industrial buildings in north Shanghai, is as funkily contemporary as the museum is dazzlingly ancient. I especially liked the ShanghART H-Space, a cavernous space showing large-scale installations by Chinese artists. At the Pacific Perspectives gallery, I became intrigued with landscapes by the Chinese-American artist Thomas Leung, pierced with fiery, near-neon lighting, and I said as much to a man working in the gallery. “I’m Thomas Leung,” he responded.
Frugal shopping options are limited, but you can try Tianzifang, a web of back alleys in the French Concession that now house restaurants and artsy boutique gift shops. Check out La Woo’s reasonably priced felt animal figures, handmade on site, more Velveteen Rabbit than Hello Kitty adorable.
For any great city to be budget-friendly, it needs intriguing street life to stroll through — and Shanghai doesn’t disappoint there. I spent a good hour wandering behind the Peach Garden Mosque near the Old City section, in one of the city’s dwindling traditional neighborhoods of residential alleyways, and found life lived in the open: a man and woman washing a fish at an outdoor sink, a pair of red and purple rubber gloves hanging near just-scrubbed sweet potatoes, a cart full of fluorescent light bulbs lining a side alley.
The Chinese apparently look down on the city’s native dishes. Shanghai’s cuisine “is the redheaded stepchild of Chinese food,” said Jamie Barys, an American who, with Kyle Long, runs UnTour Shanghai, a food company. Yet Shanghai food is a good baby step toward eating in the nearby provinces. Take the most famous Shanghai export, soup dumplings called xiao long bao, comfort food even for nonlovers of Chinese cuisine.
UnTour Shanghai charges $60 for a three-hour tour, but you can cheat using articles by Ms. Barys and Mr. Long in the Shanghai pages of CulinaryBackstreets.com. Or you can be connected to them through a Chinese neighbor back home and have them invite you to dinner, as I was. We had sesame paste noodles at Wei Xiang Zhai; soup dumplings at their favorite place, Nanjing Tang Bao; and Macao-style Portuguese egg tarts from Lillian Bakery.
Even on my own, my initial language-based trepidations about eating out in China dissolved. English speakers would materialize out of nowhere to help me order a bun filled with shepherd’s purse, a green related to mustard; I fumbled through China’s hand-counting system to pay street vendors for roasted sweet potatoes, misshapen beauties with crispy skin and soft yellow flesh.
My biggest expense was lodging, but even there Shanghai came through. Unlike most other cities I visited, it has good hostels, and good hostels often have private rooms mostly indistinguishable from those you’d find in decent hotels. That was true of the Shanghai Soho International Youth Hostel, where I booked a private room for 180 renminbi a night. Though the mattress was hard as a rock — par for the course during my trip — the place had amenities that most Chinese business hotels in a similar price range do not: English-speaking staff members, and no-smoking policies that are not entirely ignored.
It also had a great location, on a pleasant pedestrian path along the downtown bank of the Wusong River, a five-minute walk from the Xinzha Road subway stop. Actually, plan on six minutes: if you can resist a 60-second stop at Xiaocheng Shengjian to grab four scallion-and-sesame-seed-sprinkled pot stickers for 4.5 renminbi, you probably shouldn’t be budget-traveling in Shanghai at all.