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Smells, red lights and pesky peddlers

Sofia and I are enjoying Shanghai, but we’ve discovered a couple of not-so-great aspects about the city:

Stinky smells

One of the most noticeable shocks to the senses are the smells of Shanghai. Unfortunately none of them are particularly pleasant.

Like most Asian cities, Shanghai has a problem with it’s drains. Walking around the city you will often encounter a sudden ‘hit’ from the drains. However the petrol fumes from the massive number of cars here can also get a bit much at times, especially around traffic jams.

Perhaps the worst smells of all, surprisingly, are from food. The many hawker stands, who peddle snacks and skewered meat on the street, all seem to use some incredibly stinky oil.

But that’s not the worst food smell – the worst food smell is very peculiar, and neither Sofia nor I can put our finger on exactly what it is. The best way to describe it is smelly, cheesy feet mixed with a sickly sugary aroma. It comes from both restaurant shop-fronts and hawker stands, and we think it might be a Soya-bean sweet that is being cooked up.

It sounds innocuous enough but it’s actually really over-powering, to such an extent that I had to remove myself from one area because I thought I was going to be ill.

Of course, those visiting the UK could also say the same about the many smells that waft through London, it’s just a case of acclimatising to a new environment.

Dangerous traffic

Modern Shanghai is a city built around the car, with most roads having at least 2 or 3 lanes in each direction. One road near our hotel (which we often have to cross) must have over 8 lanes and is a good 50m wide.

Crossing such roads should be a doddle, with “green man” traffic signals and clearly defined crossing points (zebra-crossing style hatched lines) located at most junctions.

However it’s not as easy, or as safe, as one would expect. You see, in Shanghai the rules of the road at traffic lights seem to go a little something like this:

Green: Go
Red: Stop if you feel like it

Many road users, especially taxis, choose not to obey red lights when they are turning left or right. There is a constant drone of horns as angry motorists beep at pedestrians who are trying to cross the road under “red light/green man” conditions.

Shanghai used to be a city of the bicycle, but in the 21st century many people have upgraded to mopeds. These road users don’t appear to obey red lights much either, but perhaps worst is that they also drive their mopeds on the pavement. Again, you will quite often get beeped at, on the pavement, as a moped user comes up behind you and wants to get past.

Crossing a 50m stretch of road under these conditions is an experience, I can tell you. We try to stick closely to other people as they cross, as “safety in numbers” appears to be a good approach.

The constant drone of horns and traffic noise is all part of Shanghai’s ri nao (hot noise). From the 14th floor of our hotel room I can hear an ongoing battle of vehicle horns, revving engines and construction noise.

Aggressive street peddlers

Walking around the more touristy parts of town you are constantly interrupted with “You wanna buy DVD?”, “You from UK? I got nice Rolex for sale”, and I even got the quite unbelievable “hello mate, wow you are really special person – I do you really good price” (without even saying what it is they are selling!).

Of course, this happens practically everywhere in Asia to Western tourists. But walking down the Nanjing Road (described in the guidebook as “China’s no 1 shopping street” for domestic Chinese shoppers) was just a constant barrage of picketers every 20m or so. And these aren’t market style traders with a stall or anything like that – these are individuals who subtlety (and not-so-subtlety) walk up to you, tap you on the arm and pull out from their pocket a watch or a laminated scrap of paper with DVD titles on it.

Yesterday it got so annoying that it took a bit the shine off of our sightseeing expedition.

I guess there’s good and bad points to any destination you visit – and I don’t want to sound shallow by complaining about odd smells and dodgy traffic. We are still enjoying our trip very much, and that’s what counts at the end of the day.

Published in China & Japan


  1. Martin Baker Martin Baker

    Most of the stuff I read on the web is tech based but this is the first time I’ve ever read someone’s travelblog (don’t you love it when you invent a word and then find out that it already exists!). Being able to see the photos is just fantastic and I’m really enjoying it. Thanks for taking the time to do it on your time off.

  2. peri imler peri imler

    i dont like that cause i was born in shanghai. your critilizing me!!!! how rude. i hate u..

    peri imler
    south carolina
    age 11

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