Beijing and Shanghai are two very different cities in China. While the capital is steeped with ancient history and a gritty, authentic vibe, Shanghai could very well be placed in the middle of Europe without anyone even noticing. The main point I’d heard about Beijing before coming to China was that it’s a big city, nothing more, nothing less. Most people were happy to leave the land of smog and either head inland to more rural areas of the country or take the train further south. Shanghai, on the other hand, was described to me as a vibrant metropolis offering westernized architecture and culinary delights. While I was thrilled to have a proper working shower in Shanghai and a bathroom free of giant spider-grasshopper bugs, my preference remains with Beijing, and here’s why:
I did not come to China with the expectation of using working showers and sleeping in bug-free accommodation (those are just side bonuses), but instead boarded the plane with the intention of immersing myself in the local culture. If Kyle and I walk into a restaurant and the majority of faces are the same skin color as mine, I’ll walk out immediately. I’m not racist, I just don’t want to have some watered-down version of local cuisine that’s been altered to fit the needs of western tourists. I will never understand people who travel halfway across the world to eat at the same restaurants they can find back home, or interact only with others of their nationality. The best way to find the most white people in Shanghai is to go to the nearest Starbucks.
Beijing is massive, beyond polluted on certain days and definitely not the cleanest city you will ever visit, but it is authentic. We rarely saw other westerners on the streets, and the number of people who wanted pictures with us simply because we were the only ones with lighter skin and hair were countless. While Beijing has history dating back thousands of years to the Ming dynasty, it seems as though the focus of Shanghai is its development after being occupied by Europeans. The Bund is the main walkway flanking the river, and it’s often compared with Wall Street in New York. In the 1900s this area saw much development as Shanghai’s financial district, and the European influence here is clear.
Now, if you were to come to Shanghai for a week’s vacation before heading home and had money to burn, you’d probably fall in love with the city. Because of its multicultural population, Shanghai is home to endless restaurants offering everything from Indian cuisine to Mongolian. Nightclubs and cocktail bars are abundant with views and exclusivity to make one feel like a VIP on any night of the week. As a backpacker trying to survive on $30 a day, I’ll stick with the $3 dumplings and dollar beers from Beijing.
In short, I cannot objectively say that one city is better than the other, because it all depends on personal preference. Backpacking on the cheap in Shanghai is extremely difficult, but those with money to blow would have an amazing time. If you’re looking to dive head first into Chinese culture and history, Beijing offers sights dating back thousands of years (just don’t go there as a backpacker expecting the utmost of cleanliness no matter where you go). Perhaps in twenty years time I’ll return to Shanghai with deep pockets and completely change my own personal opinion on the place. For now (and for me), Beijing wins, regardless of dealing with mutated grasshopper-spiders staring back at me while showering.