Shop around for the best look at life on the streets

Fiona Vella

altwritten by Fiona Vella

The cities of Beijing and Shanghai are definitely a mecca for those who love shopping. Never ending roads brim with hundreds of shops which offer an endless choice of all sorts of products.

Ancient shops of different traditional trades stand side by side to modern ones which sell famous brand commodities. Flea markets provide the opportunity to look out for unusual items or for a good bargain but one must always keep in mind that most of the items are not genuine.

Shopping can also be a way of getting closer to the locals especially in those areas where one is expected to negotiate the price. At times language could be a barrier since not all the Chinese can communicate in English. However, somehow, if you really want to purchase something, you’ll surely find a way to get across.

Qianmen Street – Beijing

altQianmen pedestrian street runs south from Tiananmen Square, just along the Beijing central axis for about a kilometre.

This popular zone bears its origin to the ancient times of the Ming and Qing Dynasties when it was already renowned for its lantern fairs, theaters and tea-houses. Yet unfortunately, in 1900, this area was burnt down to ashes when Beijing was ransacked by the Eight-Nation Alliance.

The present Qianmen Street has been rebuilt into four zones with particular areas designated for culture, food, shopping and entertainment. Stepping from one shop to another is like entering into a different world altogether.

Elegant shops selling expensive jewellery with a particular focus on jade stand next to bargain outlets bursting with a multitude of souvenirs and knick knack objects. Popular Western fast-food outlets like Mc Donalds and KFC compete with traditional Chinese cuisine such as Qianmen Quanjude Duck Restaurant for the attention of hungry clients.

An old style tram runs from north to south of Qianmen Street. However, for those who really want a taste of Chinese culture, walking is definitely better.

Wangfuying – Beijing

Wangfujing is very famous both with locals and with tourists as its outlets extend over a total length of about two kilometres. This flourishing business quarter dates back to 1260 and it has a long interesting history.

In the wide main street, once again, West meets East since one finds huge shopping malls with international designer brands standing next to Beijing renowned trades, such as Shengxifu hat store, Tongshenghe shoe shop, and the Wuyutai tea house.

However, here, the real delight for tourists lies in the narrower side streets which look rather like a busy beehive. Indeed, this zone is definitely not recommended for those who hate crowded places or for those faint at heart. For this is where you’ll witness the roots of the traditional Beijing, especially through some of the exotic foods which you will be offered.

The different smells coming out of the numerous food stalls will entice you to look closer and maybe to try out something. The vast choice will consist of fresh fruit, dumplings, fried foods, and plenty of kebabs with all sorts of meat including lamb, chicken, pork, starfish, seahorse, worms, insects and live scorpions!

Nonetheless, if you lose appetite, there is still more to see and buy in the other outlets which boast the true colours of China. Your preference and the amount of money which you are ready to spend will be the only limits. Exquisite shoes, silk scarves and ornaments, clothes, wood creations, colourful masks, stuffed pandas and toys, and a torrent of souvenirs are some of the items available in a much longer list.

At the end of this visit, you’ll feel as if you have just been through a whirlwind of experiences. Definitely unforgettable!

Nanjing Road – Shanghai

altShanghai is a different world altogether from Beijing and this is clearly evident whilst walking along Nanjing Road. Believed to be the first shopping street in China, this road stretches for more than five kilometres with hundreds of different shops on each side.

Here, shopping malls, department stores and boutiques with luxury brands like Dior, Chanel, Armani, Prada and Calvin Klein compete for clients’ attention with elegant and costly products. In fact, more than a pedestrian shopping street this area has also become a zone for both locals and visitors in order to experience the culture of modern Shanghai.

It is best to visit Nanjing Road in the evening when the area is fully lit and quite spectacular.

Yuyuan Bazaar – Shanghai

This is an outdoor bazaar which stands next to the famous Yuyuan Garden. Its attraction lies in the wooden architecture of the shops and market stalls and in the traditional items which they sell.

Since Shanghai is close to Suzhou, one will find a good choice of silk products here. Moreover, amongst the amazing array of traditional Chinese products, one can select amongst paintings by folk artists, calligraphy works and tools, including ink, paper, brushes, pens, and ink slabs, bamboo and wood carvings, bronze wares, porcelain tea-sets, jade pieces and pearls from Taihu Lake, to mention only a few.

There are no boundaries to what you can actually find whilst exploring this bazaar. Indeed, in offhand corners, you might see people selling small animals and reptiles, and also bracelets of simple but fragrant flowers.

A food market in Shanghai

It is very easy to find yourself completely enthralled by the exciting and dynamic city of Shanghai, thereby feeling urged to explore also other areas which are outside the usual guided tours.

altParticularly endearing is the sheer contrast between the ultra-modern neon-lit high rises lying at the background of the raw and coarse atmosphere of meagre street food stalls where many locals gather to buy their grocery needs.

Once again, your senses will be fully assaulted with unusual activities, smells and sounds. Here you can observe the wide choice of foods available which includes eggs of different poultry, river and sea fish and crustaceans, vegetables and fruit of whatever type and size, and various herbs and tea leaves.

Live chicken and ducks look out from cages whilst one of them is being killed and cleaned there and then for a customer. Cute puppies look out expectantly from other cages, their destinies depending on who’s going to buy them.

Surely, a visit to any of these markets should be included in one’s itinerary in order to experience the real China.

(This article was published in the Travel Supplement of The Sunday Times of Malta dated 11th January 2015)