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In a city of 26 million people, the largest metro system in the world to enjoy, plus endless things to see and do, it helps to do a bit of research before flying over to Pudong International.

Shanghai

I took the time to create a Google map with destinations broken down into the areas I was staying in (and printed a few copies to take along – a godsend since I lacked internet any time I left the hotels), downloaded a few apps to familiarize myself with their options and got a stack of Chinese CNY (Yuan, aka RMB) before leaving Canada.

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Here’s a few helpful tips to hopefully make your trip a bit less hectic, especially if you’re visiting Shanghai for the first time.

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[The hyper-beast that is Maglev]

Getting Around

Shanghai is connected by 16 metro lines, making it the largest network in the world; the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation, the fastest commercial train in the world) to Longyang Station from Pudong International takes only eight minutes, travelling at a top operating speed of 431 kph (268 mph).

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It costs 40 CNY if you can show proof of your flight that day (50 CNY regular fare).

The Shanghai metro stations have excellent way-finding in both Chinese and English; next stops are called out in both languages as well. Purchase a Shanghai Public Transportation Card (CNY 20 deposit) and top up as you go.

As stations only accept Chinese apps and bank cards, just take your 20 CNY (or even 10 CNY) note to any station attendant and they’ll scan your transportation card and add value on the fly. It costs only a few CNY to get to most places in the city (less than 50 cents USD).

The metros are also air-conditioned and comfortable. I wish more metro stations had Shanghai’s ease of use.

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A note on busses: DO use them in place of cabs and especially when it rains in Shanghai: traffic comes to a halt and DiDi can take up to an hour to secure a ride, but busses have their own dedicated lane! For 2 CNY (CAD .38/USD .29), you can get pretty much anywhere on the dual-language bus system.

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This can also come in handy when visiting the well-hidden, yet worth the effort Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre (not near any metro lines but close to bus line 71). Note that very few people speak English so it’s best to have directions (and destination) written out for you in Chinese before setting out.

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Speaking of traffic, scooters WILL ride up on the sidewalk in heavy traffic!

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Cash or Credit Card?

I’d heard that many places only accept cash and don’t often have change. After two weeks here, I can safely say that this isn’t true.

Only small shops and museums (such as the one above) won’t accept credit cards. Fill your wallet with cash and know that there’s ATM machines around the city so you won’t be left stranded. I used a mix of cash and MasterCard during my time here.

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Plugging In & Staying Connected

Here’s the challenge in Mainland China: VPN (and certain SIM cards) may not work here. Make sure to pack a dose of patience: with an iPhone, I first had to make sure my VPN was off, THEN log onto the hotel’s wifi (my SIM card never worked the entire time I was here), and lastly reconnect to a VPN to access social media, Google/Google maps and the like.

I also needed to shut off my VPN in order to send and receive email — in essence a juggling act. Chinese SIM cards (and cellular roaming options) can work here, however I did meet fellow tech writers at CES Asia that couldn’t get their US roaming plans to work here either.

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I wound up taking a part-time digital detox: between the time/date difference and wanting to explore and avoid looking down at my phone screen, I was able to manage two weeks on hotel wifi. It’s brilliant — you should give it a try sometime!

If accessing the internet is non-negotiable for you, then I’d suggest bringing a North American SIM card but prepare to use your provider’s roaming plan and/or purchase a Chinese SIM card when you arrive.

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Etiquette

Keep your patience level in check: things don’t ever go smoothly 100% of the time anywhere in the world and China is no exception. There are times you’ll need to work through finger signs to make your point understood.

Just don’t point your finger at anyone as it’s considered rude here. Extend your hand out and aim at your object with an open palm.

Also evident is the (over)use of cell phones and notification pings. The Chinese are hooked on their smartphones so expect some digital noise each time a WeChat message comes through on their phones.

Always give out and receive a business card with two hands; it’s the polite way to exchange cards here. And show up on time; punctuality is a virtue in China.

The most important words you’ll want to learn are Ni hao (hello) and Xièxie (thank you).

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[Inside a Shanghai metro station]

Helpful Apps to Download

These are all free, in Chinese and English, and are super helpful while in China.

DiDi, the Chinese Uber, is fantastic (provided you have wifi or cellular access). It not only works in English but you can add your credit card information from home. I booked DiDi to travel between hotels on this trip.

WeChat is the Chinese version of iMessage and WhatsApp; unfortunately you won’t be able to use the AliPay (a third-party mobile and online payment platform) option built into the app – it only accepts Chinese credit cards. I hope to see this change in the future as it’s a seamless way to pay for goods and services around the country.

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Explore Metro (for Shanghai) provides a realtime metro map for your phone. Nice for planning outings around the city and it’s in English too.

A VPN (social media apps and Google are banned in China)! I used Express VPN. It works pretty well, depending on location and time of day (you’ll likely get bounced off the network from time to time but after awhile learn the most reliable networks to connect to).

If you have any other tips to add, we’d love to hear ’em!

2 Comments

  • Comment by fit — July 5, 2019 @ 12:06 am

    Thanks so much for this first-timer’s guide! We are planning a family trip to China, so this article seems very helpful! Is that true that not all VPNs works in China? https://tipsfromgeeks.com/guides/vpns-still-working-in-china/

  • Comment by Ariane Colenbrander — July 5, 2019 @ 7:17 am

    Hey there,
    Thanks for reading, and glad you found the post useful. Yes, it is true that not all VPNs work there but I’ve heard from others while there that it’s more a question of stability than working. In other words, most of the time, you will be able to find a connection but it inevitably gets bounced off after a while. It is a big of a juggling act, and every SIM card and VPN acts differently there. I hope you can find the combination that works for you and your family! Let us know if you found a stable one, keeping in mind that the government finds and locks out new ones all the time.

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