Are you staying in Shanghai for a while? Wondering about what to eat and trying to Google it out? To be honest, you will probably get much better results if you know some Chinese using Baidu search. If not, then you are stuck with me here in this blog but I will be try to be as helpful as possible.
I would like to begin with the fact that I liked Shanghai a lot. It’s really a clean, organized , has an amazing public transportation network and plenty of food places. If you are not really into Asian then you still have plenty of international options. Many people can speak English or at least a few words, the rest usually is smart enough to understand what I want using some body language.
This guide is intended to pass over my experience to people who are intending to stay in Shanghai for a couple of months or more. It’s not targeting tourists but it could help anyway.
Essential Mobile Apps
I think before everything it’s essential to prepare some apps on your mobile, otherwise it would be more difficult to survive even when some of these apps are completely in Chinese they will still prove to be useful in some situations.
I would say WeChat is the most important app in China, it’s much more than chat, it’s like a combination of WhatsApp, Facebook, Apple Pay and it’s also used in business frequently. For the Chinese people it’s pretty normal that your co-worker or boss asks for your WeChat id to call you for work purposes or even pass you business information through it and expects the same from you, additionally all your new Chinese friends will be on WeChat and you don’t want to miss that and on top of all that you can use it to pay nearly anywhere even at the small fruit shop around the corner.
It’s the same here, it’s just not your standard mobile payments application. Maybe because Chinese like to have many functionalities on a single platform. Some additional features that I used on Alipay:
- Paying utilities bills: Basically you need to enter your subscription number which should be written on the bill (a friend can help you to locate it) and you will be able to pay your bills with one click. Extremely efficient.
- Renting a bike: The usual drill, scan, unlock and pay.
- Top up: for Chinese mobile phone numbers.
- There are more features like booking trains, flights or even movie tickets but I didn’t really explore them.
This leads us to a crucial point which is how to activate the mobile payment feature on Alipay or WeChat? From my experience your normal credit or debit card won’t really work but adding a Chinese debit card should be straight forward. However, you need of course to open a bank account which should take a couple of hours depending on your visa type. If you have a long stay visa it should be possible but if you are on a category M visa only 2 banks as far as I know might agree to open an account for you: Eventbrite and Shanghai bank. You will also need a letter from the Chinese entity that you are working with them locally.
Google, Facebook, WhatsApp. Youtube .. and many other western world services are blocked or very slow therefore you will probably need a paid VPN service to be really able to use these services reliably (to contact your family for example). And don’t forget to figure out this before landing in the airport, once you are in China it will be a very difficult job to obtain a VPN solution.
I tested around 4-5 solutions and concluded that the most reliable ones are:
- Ladder VPN; Cheap, mobile only, speed is ok.
- Express VPN: Expensive, mobile and PC, speed is very good, however it’s popular and probably known to the Chinese government so it’s possible that it gets blocked for a few hours/days then returns back up.
I would recommend that you have at least 2 solutions. If you are on a work assignment then probably your company’s VPN should be a feasible resort.
Google maps are not really helpful in China, they don’t have a lot of data. And won’t help you in finding the correct transportation. On the other hand Amap has accurate maps with extensive details. There are two tricks to use it if you don’t know any Chinese:
- Try to search with English names or addresses, it will mostly work.
- If you know a close metro station to where you are going you can also type it in English. This will definitely work.
Now, you were able to locate where are you going and have all the alternative routes listed on the app screen but unfortunately everything is in Chinese. There will be no problem reading the metro/bus line number and the poor man solution to read the destination station name (or at least what I used to do) is to look into the map in the station before you hop into the carriage and try to compare the Chinese text character by character, it might sound weird but it will eventually work because inside the metro station there are alternate English/Chinese texts on every sign. It’s really clear once you get used to it but you might to need to do this matching a few times in the beginning.
If you are willing to travel, this website will help you to book train and flight tickets. It has also a wider selection of hotels in China compared to Booking.
A tip regarding purchased train tickets through the app: You will need to give yourself some lead time to go to the ticket office before your trip to get printed tickets.
Microsoft Translator [English]
This one saved me a lot. If at some point you need to say or understand more than your usual little dictionary of Chinese words then this app will definitely come in handy. The most useful feature is the voice translation mode where it splits the screen into 2 halves, the first half has a mic icon that listens to Chinese and translates to English while the icon on the second screen half does the inverse. It works well on most of the cases and was really useful on many situations.
Equivalent to Uber
Note: It’s not on the play store.
Food delivery is very popular here, you will find motor bikes rushing everywhere on the streets to deliver food somewhere. It’s also in Chinese but you can search in English for some kinds of food like pizza or burger and select food based on the pictures, making the order and paying via AliPay or WeChat shouldn’t be a problem. An important hint is that you need when setting up the app some help from your Chinese friend to type in your address very accurately in Chinese. When the driver arrives you will get a call from him and because you don’t know any Chinese and he won’t probably know any English you better show up quickly at your doorstep or in front of the building to receive your food.
It’s the YouTube + Netflix + Sports streaming of China. There are some free movies but the latest ones will be watch-on-demand. You can buy a ticket for a movie by scanning a code using AliPay or WeChat. It also has very nice sport content as I was able to watch some free premier league matches, the important matches are watch-on-demand though.
China is in my opinion at a point beyond the cashless society, mobile payments are dominant nearly everywhere. If you were able to activate any of WeChat or AliPay wallets then you are already in a very good position, however cash of course still works.
I don’t recommend exchanging money in the airport except maybe a very little amount for the taxi. (beware of scams and don’t go with anyone, just outside the airport you will find an organized line of metered cabs with well-defined tariffs and will also give you an invoice)
Back to our topic about obtaining Yuans or RMBs (the 2 names are equivalent but the later is used more) it really depends on where do you come from and how much fees your bank will charge you. MasterCard and VISA cards should work normally and there are many ATMs everywhere but maybe not all of them will work with your particular card so you need to try different banks. All ATMs I used supported English and Chinese. In my case my I could use my MasterCard to withdraw RMBs from my Euro account at the market rate with a 1.7% fee. Your bank may give you a better or worse deal. I would then take the cash and deposit it into my Chinese bank account. In China the ATMs that support depositing money are called CDSs.
Enjoy trying all sort of Chinese local recipes especially the roasted duck but if you are longing for something that you would find home, there are many alternatives.
- Pizzahut, McDonald’s, KFC and all your lovely junk food is available nearly around each corner. I have seen more KFCs than any city I have been to.
- The Habit Burger and Grill: Very good burgers and a great variety of tasty salads (Grilled chicken salad, Cesar salad, chicken BBQ Salad). I have eaten too much salads from this place to the extent that most of the staff recognizes me when I enter the place.
- The blue frog bar and grill: Steaks and burgers
- Eli Falafel (Halal): Lebanese, near People’s square, it’s on Google maps
- Brothers Kebab (Halal): Shawrama and Koshari, many branches around the city.
- City Center Super market: The concept of a large super market isn’t prominent here, instead there are small shops everywhere. This was the only place that actually looked like a conventional super market. It has many branches and recognizable food brands but they are overpriced because this place isn’t targeting the ordinary Chinese.
- Carefourr Easy Market: there are plenty of branches around the city with various sizes.
I have already blabbed a lot about the metro. It’s really clean, clear, convenient, inexpensive (3 RMBs for a short trip, more for longer) and almost covers the whole city. I would suggest that you buy the metro card, charge it from the vending machines (have English support) instead of buying a ticket each time. There is also a mobile version but I just used the card. The electronic gate will show you your current credit at entry and credit after deduction at exit.
Buses are also OK and extremely cheap (1 RMB) but you need to have a better Chinese because unlike the metro there are no English signs.
You can use the same card for public Ferris crossing the bund and also the maglev train to the airport. (a one way ticket costs 50 RMBs)
Moving your legs
Sadly there isn’t a lot of green areas in the city. It needs really a big park to allow people to breathe some fresh air. Still there are a couple of places to move your legs. If you are in a shopping mode walk the Nanjing pedestrian street near the people’s square, it’s very vibrant and has a lot of shops. Yuyuan market is also very nice.
There are tons of malls with all the well known western brands, consumerism at its best here.
My favorite walk was over the bund and in the financial district (near the fork tower). There are 2 sides of the bund, one is not very clean and usually crowded but If you took the ferry to the other side (only for 1 RMB) there is a much better walking lane for pedestrians and cyclists. There is a couple of good restaurants by the river too.
If you type in the word mosque into the Amap app you will basically find 3 main mosques in Shanghai. I only went to Huxi mosque near Changshou Road station on line 13 for Friday prayers. The prayer speech is mostly in Chinese with few Arabic sections. It’s very clean and well maintained and there is a halal meat shop just beside this mosque if you are planning to cook.
If you are not a Muslim I would still highly recommend to visit the street food market there. It’s open every Friday. There are plenty of delicious kebabs, skewers, sweets and fruits. Really cool.
That’s all. I hope that you enjoy your trip to China and explore more cities.