They appeared like little spaceships from the future, floating along the Huangpu River, lighting the night sky. We watched in wonder and puzzlement from our table in the Crystal Symphony Dining Room. Was there a holiday we didn’t know about, or were these decked-out vessels a routine sighting on a Friday night in Shanghai?

Boat - Future

Boat - Green

Boat - Pirate

The answer didn’t really matter. It was the question that intrigued me. Shanghai was striking me as a complex and complicated city, and it made perfect sense that boats looking like they had just left an amusement park would be passing by a waterfront of cutting-edge-designed skyscrapers. If the Shanghai World Financial Center can top its building with a bottle opener, then a tourist boat can transform itself into a pirate ship.

Skyline from Ship
The Shanghai World Financial Center with its “bottle opener” top stands out in a crowd of innovative architecture.

After our whirlwind overnight trip to Xi’an, I was looking forward to exploring a bit of Shanghai beyond the waterfront. And after two days of an intensely hazy view, I was thrilled that the smog had decided to clear. Herb and I were off the ship early, heading by taxi to Old Town. Crystal had given us cards with the port information written in Chinese and had recommended taking taxis that were painted in specific colors to insure a fair charge. What they didn’t mention was how many shades of colored taxis there were. Light blue…dark blue…was that one aqua? We also carried cards written in Chinese that listed major sites and key areas in the city.

Yuyan Garden

We began our morning at the Yuyuan Garden, a more than 450-year-old oasis that seemed like it was out of the pages of a long-ago China. Yuyuan is as much about the setting as it is about the gardens themselves. Intricate stone walkways, lovely ponds and red-colored buildings decorated with rooftop sculptures are scattered throughout. It was surprisingly serene despite the Saturday morning crowds and commercialism that surrounded it.

Yuyuan Bldg

Yuyuan Roof
Every rooftop was decorated with dragons, figures and other symbolic references.
Yuyuan Roof2
An ancient Yuyuan rooftop and a modern skyscraper in the distance.
Yuyuan Bridge
View from the Yuyuan Garden’s Zig Zag Bridge.

Nanjing Road

The other item on my itinerary was a shopping destination: Amylin’s Pearls on Nanjing Road. Amylin’s shop had popped up many times during my trip research. Known for high quality, fair prices and a large selection, I thought it would be a perfect place to buy pearl earrings. With the address in hand, I began my quest.

If we had thought the shops around Yuyuan Garden were crowded, then we needed a new adjective to describe Nanjing Road. The pedestrian-only street is a three-and-a-half-mile shopping mall, complete with a Kiddie Land-like tram that transports shoppers from one end of the mall to the other. Like the pirate ship from the night before, the tram was a sharp contrast to the modern retailers, and with so many people, it seemed like it must be another holiday.

Nanjing Train

The Kindness of Strangers

We walked for blocks looking for number 580, but when we finally found it, Amylin’s was not there. After several attempts asking for directions, we found an English-speaking concierge at a nearby Sofitel who solved our mystery: Amylin’s was on West Nanjing, and we were on the east side. The concierge said it would be a very long walk and offered to call us a taxi. He left his desk when the cab arrived, walked us outside and told the driver in Mandarin where we wanted to go. When we arrived at number 580, we took the escalator to the third floor and found Amylin’s. A friendly salesgirl helped us select my special souvenir pearls and made them into earrings while we waited.

Before heading back to the ship, we walked along the Bund and soaked up the Shanghai skyline one last time. It had been a wonderful day of exploring, but what I will remember most about Shanghai is the concierge from the Sofitel on Nanjing Road. That’s what I love about travel. You will always find people willing to help, no matter where you are. Even when you don’t speak the language. Even when you’re not the hotel’s guest. A small act of kindness stays in the memory a long time and never fails to bring a smile.


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