Sunday, March 9, 2014

Shanghai, China: A Birthday in the City that Ignited My Wanderlust

I only had a few minutes to myself before my travel companions and I reunited at the lobby. We had just settled into our accommodations for the night but I quickly rushed down as soon as I dropped off my bags. Fortunately, our hostel was steps away from one of the most impressive riverfronts on this side of the world. So I walked towards where the people and the glittering lights were and again saw the sight that ignited my wanderlust three years ago.

There, on the other side of the river, was the global financial center of Pudong. Skyscrapers filled the skyline and their lights flashed extra bright this cold winter night. I was back.

Welcome to Shanghai, China.

Pudong Skyline, Shanghai, China
I do heart SH. I really do.

A Lot of Travel Firsts

I first came here this time three years ago. I was such a giddy and excited traveler then, and that trip was a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I traveled to a country that required a visa, the first time I ever visited China, and the first time, having grown up in a tropical country, I had to don proper winter clothes. On all three counts, and after three more years of frequent, sometimes constant travel, they would not be the last.

Fresh as a traveler can be. Shanghai in March 2011.
Photo by Rachel de Leon

I remember that morning clearly. Having arrived very late the previous night at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and having had only a few hours of sleep, I and my travel companions then were all too eager to get out and start exploring this Chinese city.

But first, of course, food.

We went to a street-side stall for cōng yóu bǐng, or scallion pancake, and to a hole-in-the-wall eatery for dumpling soup. I had been in love with Chinese street food in Shanghai ever since.

Dumpling Soup, Shanghai, China
In China, Chinese food is just called food. Imagine that.

Cōng Yóu Bǐng, Shanghai, China
Cōng yóu bǐng (scallion pancakes). Yes, that's a layer of egg and a hotdog in there.

The Birthday Trip

I was traveling to Shanghai on a more special occasion this time. I was here on my birthday. However, there wasn't anything special planned. Truth be told, after hiking to the snow-covered Yellow Mountains (Huangshan) and spending a night in the ancient village of Hongcun, we felt like we had seen and done so much already in China the past few days that we, or at least I, wanted to take it easy while in Shanghai.

We did do a few touristy things like the Bund, Nanjing Road, People's Park, and the Yu Gardens. (So really, all of the touristy things.) By the early evening, I and a friend even crossed to the other side of the Huangpu River and took in the blue hour witnessing the grand old colonial buildings of Shanghai begin to light up for the night.

The Bund, Shanghai, China
Like looking at a skyline in Europe, or the US. Shanghai is China but not quite.

Sitting there, waiting out in the cold for the night sky to descend on my birthday, I began thinking. (Not always a good thing, I discovered. But that's what you're wont to do the day you turn a year older, isn't it?)

Is the Wanderlust Still There?

There was this short story I read once. The main character traveled to Hong Kong and felt the busy and electric atmosphere of Kowloon for the first time. She enjoyed it immensely. Years later, she traveled back, and saw Kowloon's ugly side, its dirtier and grittier alleys and neighborhoods. She realized she had worn rose-tinted glasses during her first visit.

Maybe she has. But if you ask me, as much as Kowloon might have changed during the time the main character was away, maybe she underwent changes, too. The simple truth is, we all change. It's like when you go back to your high school, you realize how big that world was to you and how small it is now.

Capturing the grand old colonial buildings of Shanghai in 2011
Photo by Rachel de Leon

In 2011, I could have never imagined how much travel I would be doing the next few years. I would acquire a lot more passport stamps, countless hours waiting at the airport, and one too many grueling bus rides. But more importantly though, I would do a lot more seeing, a lot more tasting, and a lot more challenging and pushing myself. I don't feel I have changed a lot (I'm still me after all), but I know I have.

I didn't realize it then but revisiting Shanghai was a test. After so much travels, was I still the giddy and excited traveler I was in 2011? Did I still have that wanderlust that the city ignited?

Well, I'm not as giddy or excited as I was. Thank goodness. Because who has that much energy? And aneurysm. I am definitely more tempered and focused now, and I know myself better as a traveler, as a person.

But I do still have that wanderlust. Burning brightly and intensely as before.

I don't think it will ever die down.

Have you traveled back to the city that ignited your wanderlust? How did you feel you've changed?

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