Only Come To See United
After maybe 3 months of planning from first conceiving the thought of travelling to China, my trip to see United’s preseason tour in Shanghai and Beijing finally came into being. In that time I’d managed to just about sketch out my 2 weeks in the country, learn some (very) basic Mandarin and also change jobs. A whirlwind few months which worked out well, just enough time to sort all of my travel and tickets without anxiously over-planning my first trip to Asia.
The first leg of the tour took me to Shanghai, for United’s game vs Dortmund on 22nd July. This was originally set to be Mourinho’s first game in charge until a late fixture was added against Wigan; just a £10 return trip and a decent day out, but I opted to skip that match to brush up on my lingo ahead of a 14 hour flight from Manchester just a few days later.
Applying for a Chinese visa was a lot more straightforward than I’d first anticipated. Despite there being 15 types listed on VisaforChina.org, the one for any traveller is the 90 day tourist ‘L’ visa. The four page form is a doddle and the supporting material as expected; I’m not sure how much they look into the ‘which countries have you visited in the past 12 months’ answer. Aside from flagging trips to dangerous or infectious regions there’s little to gain. Either way, providing details for 12 months is certainly much easier than the 10 years you’re supposed to recall for a Russian visa.
When it came to processing the application, handily for me the Chinese visa application service centre wasn’t too far away, located on Mosley Street in the centre of Manchester. The £151 total cost (£85 for the visa and £66 service fee) was paid on collection four days later; an ‘express’ application for an extra 27 quid meant you could have it in three, not much of an upsell. Whilst the cost was a little more than I’d expected, the visa does actually last for 2 years (with a 90 day limit each trip) so a future visit could be on the cards. Of course, I’ll have to see whether the football takes me back there… Note of warning – don’t put your passport through the wash. I saw a bloke denied his visa whilst I picked mine up as his passport wasn’t fit for use, unfortunately still incurring the £66 service fee!
The Currency (and the match tickets)
The Chinese currency is the yuan (¥) or renminbi, with the yuan being the more common name as the unit (like the pound) whilst the renminbi is the equivalent of the sterling. I’d kept an eye on the exchange rate in the few months before travelling and it had moved very little, just below 10 yuan to the pound at 9.8 which made for easy conversions whilst away. Unfortunately, the pound dropped quite substantially on 24th June after the results of the EU referendum. ‘Brexit’ led the exchange rate to fall immediately to around 9 yuan before slumping even further in July. Thankfully it picked up before my trip, trading at 8.8 the day I left; the home rate was not too great, 8.4 from the UK Bureau de Change and just 8.1 from my bank of choice, Natwest. Given the uncertainty and poor value, I opted to take out my currency once I arrived in China. The airport rate at Shanghai was actually as good as the UK rate, and ATMs worked out better.
One purchase I did need to make before I left was my match tickets. Having signed up for updates from United I was sent a link to the Chinese ticket operator which, whilst transcribable, seemed too much of a hassle to negotiate. The ticket bands for the games started at 400 yuan (£42) and went as high as 2600 yuan (£273) for the Dortmund game and 2800 yuan (£294) for the City game, staggering for a preseason game but the demand in China is clearly there. Thankfully United did help out, with a small allocation set aside for UK based fans, the 800 yuan tickets for each game costing 84 quid (prices all set pre-brexit).
The bulk of the travel for this trip was the 6,169 mile flight from Manchester to Shanghai, slightly extended due to a flying via Munich. I’d been looking at flights for a few months and had almost opted for the new Hainan airlines route via Beijing, but the £486 direct(ish) return flight from Lufthansa looked like a good deal. A short 2 hour flight to Munich with around an hour stopover before 11 hours into Shanghai. This was my first long haul flight in over 10 years, aided by Lufthansa’s bottomless red wine, less so by the featured film Batman vs Superman. Having started in Manchester at 6pm and arriving in Shanghai at 3pm local time, with the 7 hour time difference, I’d expected to struggle a bit with jetlag but it wasn’t too bad. I managed to get to sleep at a normal time on the first night, though it took me a few days to fully adjust to a new sleeping pattern. Booze helped, heat didn’t.
The journey from Pudong airport in the east of Shanghai was a little tricker as it was 20 miles from the Puxi region, the main part of the city in the west; the two areas split down the middle by the Huangpu river. This required a trip on the metro with a single ticket all the way through to Shanghai railway station just 7 yuan (around 80p). The equivalent journey on the metrolink to Manchester airport had cost me £3 the previous day. Travelling on the metro was actually fairly easy with all stops signposted in English as well as Chinese. The 18 stops from Pudong airport to People’s Square in the heart of the city took around an hour before a quick change of lines to head a bit further north to Shanghai railway station. The metro was certainly much livelier than in the UK, a lot more competitive getting on and off and cosy too. I’d turned a few heads during this trip, I saw very few white or western people on the metro and the average height was definitely a way below my 6’3″.
As I was arriving in Shanghai early evening and following a long overnight flight, I opted for somewhere fairly central and therefore easy to find. I also chose a hotel over a hostel so I could get my bearings and get my head down, with a more sociable place lined up in Beijing.
Located around 10 minutes walk from the main station, the Amersino Hotel was a great spot. A 3 star hotel with a respectable 3.1 rating on hotels.com and at just 58 quid for 4 nights (£14.50/night). Being close to the station and metro lines was key, as it was my base for the first few days in the country and meant easy access to travel around the city. The room itself was just what I needed, with a proper toilet and shower, a double bed and aircon. Complementary bottles of water were welcome too, as I thought it safer to avoid drinking any tap water.
Wifi was also included and presented the first part of my trip that I’d not planned for. Due to China’s strict online censorship there was no access to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (nor YouTube for what that’s worth). Most westerners I met had managed to get around this with a VPN but I just didn’t bother. I could still do everything I’d planned to and kept in touch with friends and family via Whatsapp, it just meant waiting until I was back in Europe before uploading any pictures!
The City of Shanghai
As mentioned, Shanghai is split down the middle by the Hungpu river, with the Puxi (west) and Pudong (east) areas. My hotel by the main railway station was just over 2 miles from the main sights on the west of the river, my first port of call after I’d just about acclimatised. The area I’d decided was the most central point to start each day, People’s Square, was just 3 stops on the metro, with each single journey ticket just 3 yuan (35p).
People’s Square is the biggest central square in Shanghai with a large pedestrianised area (People’s Avenue) running through the middle. Either side of this there’s the People’s Park, Shanghai Theatre, Shanghai Museum and an ominous looking government building. It’s a fairly open space with bits of greenery dotted about. Walking around here at midday in 37 degree heat wasn’t my finest idea so I jumped into the museum to cool off. Now this was a good idea, as well as a grand entrance inside there were some interesting exhibits of ancient Chinese history, namely pottery, paintings, costumes and calligraphy. Making the most of their air con I also stopped in the cafe for my first pot of Chinese tea, probably overpaying at 20 yuan, though the museum was of course free.
From here I headed down Nanjing road, the main pedestrian shopping street, which spans either side of People’s Square. It’s fairly westernised with a lot of big brand stores, and there are as many Starbucks as Macdonalds dotted about; though I did spot some bamboo scaffolding on a building which definitely wouldn’t pass western healthy and safety checks. At the end of the road, maybe 20-30 minutes walk from the square, you approach the river and the Bund. This is a mile long waterfront which offers picturesque views across the river to the famous skyline; a huge mixture of architecture with the Oriental Pearl TV Tower perhaps the most iconic.
Visiting the Bund again in the evening was well worth it to see the landmark lit up, especially with a full moon peaking out from behind one tower. It was so much busier in the evening though, probably no surprise with the sunset at around 7pm and therefore a bit cooler. The temperature dropped to around mid-20s from the mid-30s during the day. At the end of the Bund sat the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a war memorial designed to look like three rifles resting together. Another ‘peoples’ reference which seemed to be a key aspect of Chinese culture, or certainly governance.
Also around a 30 minute walk from the People’s Square, close to the river, was the Yuyuan market and gardens. I came here by chance after a old man began to speak to me in broken English, walking with me for a while and then directing me to see “old China”; I obliged as wasn’t really heading anywhere at the time. It was another picturesque spot, almost stereotypically Chinese with raised walkways through a pond and the traditional, decorative wooden buildings. Here the friend I’d made took me to a tea house where I sampled a whole range of fine tea for free. Eventually I bought him some water and gave him a few yuan so he’d leave, which I guess is all he was after anyway. The Yuyuan gardens had a small fee to enter which I skipped in favour of trying some of the street food around the market. For 10-15 yuan there was all sorts of fried and skewered meats and dim sum dumplings. Well worth a visit, even if it was a little over-touristy and full of sellers hassling you to buy watches, bags and jewellery, always “cheapest price”.
There was plenty more to see in Shanghai, lots of small parks dotted around the city, the best one perhaps the Chinese sculpture park, 15 minutes west of People’s Square. I stayed mainly in the Puxi region and didn’t really wander over the other side of river. Looking around the free attractions, travelling on the metro and eating sensibly cost me between 100-150 yuan each day.
The Food & Culture
I’d learnt some basic Mandarin before I travelled, just enough to get by. The apps I tried were all quite complex, it’s really not an easy language to learn and most courses start with the basics of how to understand and pronounce the four different tones of each letter. In the end I just settled on a few words or phrases, with help from the HelloChinese and Google translate apps:
- Hello (Nǐ hǎo) 你好
- Please (Qǐng) 请
- Thanks (Xièxie) 谢谢
- Beer (Píjiǔ) 啤酒
- Goodbye (Zàijiàn) 再见
This just about got me by, although a fair few locals did speak some basic English which helped.
In terms of food, there were street stalls all over serving similar bits as in the market. A small cafe north of Shanghai station caught my eye, largely because it was a quiet road offering few other places to eat. Here I had an amazing beef noodle soup dish, for just 15 yuan. I actually ate there a few times due to the location and price, the food was really good and it gave me the chance to improve on my chopsticks technique. The beer was not quite as cheap as I’d expected, between 20-30 yuan for a large bottle of Tsingtao or Tiger in the tourist areas. The same could be had for just 4 yuan from shops close to my hotel.
On the day of the match a fellow United fan Ying took us to a small street (Zhaozhou road) south of People’s Square; here we ate and drank like kings for 80 yuan each. Skewers of meat, soup and a really good Chinese bread, along with a jug of beer each. There were probably countless places like this, if you knew where to look. I also used the amazing app ‘maps.me’ for general navigation and to help me discover smaller food markets, all fresh, local and cheap!
A few other observations. The green man had no authority, crossing any road became a chore with a sea of mopeds ruling. I had to be careful not to collide with them weaving in and out of traffic and pedestrians. And a couple of traits from the locals, predominantly the men, who preferred to cool down in the sun by rolling their tshirts up to expose their bellys, a little odd and a technique I thought best to pass on. One I did struggle to get used to was their constant phlegming up and spitting on the streets.
After a few clear and unbearably hot days, it was almost typical that United’s visit bought the Manchester rain on match day, though only briefly. This was a welcome relief but didn’t do much for the already humid conditions.
The Shanghai stadium was 15 minutes south of the city centre, about 4 miles from People’s Square. Handily for me it was on the same metro line that ran to Shanghai station (9 stops) which meant I didn’t need to change at all, although the journey was fractionally more expensive at 4 yuan. Prior to the afternoon of the match I’d seen just one United shirt, though travelling on the metro before the game there were plenty in red and a small amount of support for Dortmund too.
On any given match day I’m usually in the ground minutes before kick off, there’s certainly very little to see or do immediately outside Old Trafford (pubs aside) and nothing worth seeing on the pitch before a match. Even cup finals, where they now try and up the ante with a pre-match show, are not worth bothering with. For this game however, I decided to head to be ground over 2 hours before kick off, just to see what was going on. Nothing too exciting was the answer, as aside from a sponsor-heavy fanzone (games like this being their payday) it was a bit tame. United, who unveiled their new kit the next day, were probably making a killing selling last seasons stock, it really was a sea of red. Interestingly, the whole bottom floor of the main stadium was like a shopping centre. There was absolutely all sorts, designer clothes stores, loads of fast food places and even a gay bar.
There were loads of touts too. Brazenly stood with wads of cash in their hands, like a beacon to any ticketless fans. But not the police. Instead their priority seemed to be moving on old women with bags of knock off shirts.
The ground itself was impressive, a sort of half bowl shape, and a capacity of 56,000. I thought it’d be packed out, but was probably 3/4 full (the attendance not announced). Perhaps due to the appeal of the opposition, if not definitely the prices. The United end was full, our own small section had around 50 English reds scattered around a little. The locals passion is unquestionable and they certainly seemed to enjoy the occasion. I wasn’t overawed by everything they did however, a Mexican wave, a copy of that Iceland clap and a sort of whooping rather than shouting or cheering. They themselves put on a good show though, with a few big flags draped down one tier at periods in the game.
There was nothing too much to report back on in regards to the match itself. Dortmund were a lot sharper and clinical, with 2 easy goals in the first half after defensive mistakes from United. It was good to see Luke Shaw and the new lads Mkhitaryan and Bailly but it looked like the team still had a lot to do for the new season. The best entertainment of the evening came in the stadium hotel after the match. Most of the reds who’d travelled over gathered here for beers, overpaying at hotel prices of 55 yuan a pint, but there were songs until the early hours, led by the old boys, with the hotel staff looking on part-nervous, part-intrigued, but continuing to pour pints.
So after 5 days and 4 nights in Shanghai I was now on my way to Beijing. My time there had been eye opening and I’d taken in and embraced as much culture as I could. The match, as ever, was nowhere near the highlight of the trip, but the post-match drinks made up for that. I’d be visiting Shanghai again for half a day on my way back but in the time I’d spent here I’d seen, eaten and experienced everything that I wanted too. A great start to my first preseason tour with United.
Total travel costs: £488
Visa costs: £151
Miles travelled: 6,195 (one way via Munich)
Accommodation: £15/night (single room)
Match ticket: 800 yuan (£84)
Average cost of pint: 35 yuan (£4)
Match attendance: 42,000 (estimate)
Result: Borussia Dortmund 4: United 1
Match played 22/07/16