I’m back in the USA for the summer. This past year, I spent another season in Shanghai—that exotic, endlessly fascinating, and ever-changing city. I’ve compiled the best of the stories and pictures I gathered about social life and travels in China in diary form, and I’ll be posting them from time to time. Here’s another:
Shanghai Sideways: Vintage Sidecar Motorcycle Tours
Without a doubt, one of my favorite and most exciting ways to see the metropolis of Shanghai is from the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by Thomas Chabrieres, co-founder of Shanghai Sideways motorcycle tours.
The Sideways tours allow a unique look at Shanghai: viewing the city’s eclectic neighborhoods and its mix of contemporary and historic architecture while riding a sidecar motorcycle.
I take it on each visit, at the beginning to reacquaint myself with Shanghai and at the end to bid it farewell. Every tour opens my eyes to something new.
French-born Thomas Chabrieres is one of many expatriates who arrived in China and made his mark. In 1999, he followed his sister to Beijing for business opportunities. After nine years at an advertising company, he decided to follow his passion: motorcycle riding.
Thomas founded Shanghai Sideways to introduce both visitors and locals to the city as they ride through it on one of his ChangJiang 750cc sidecar motorcycles, replicas of 1938 vintage BMW R71s.
Continually expanding, Shanghai Sideways now has a fleet of 30 bikes in its namesake city, a fleet in Beijing, and as of this spring, others in the provinces of Xi’an and Lijiang. My fantasy adventure is to ride with them to Shangri-La in Yunnan Province.
Shanghai Sideways guides are bilingual, expert bikers with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city. They’ll take you on a customized tour that might include the back alleys of the original Old Town, the 1920’s French Concession, the futuristic financial center, the best local markets, and whatever else piques your interest.
The tour is a great way to orient yourself, especially if you’re pressed for time, and far more intimate than touring by bus or car. You’ll certainly see things you might not see on your own.
The following photographs highlight, in chronological order, the sights I viewed while riding with Thomas.
A THRILLING RIDE
One Sunday morning, I went on a Shanghai Sideways adventure with my young friends Amy Wood and her fiancé Alexander (“Sandy”) Moore, who were visiting from Hong Kong.
Based in China for 8 years, including Shanghai for five, American-born Amy has traveled extensively in China, is an art expert, leads art tours, and writes for travel and art publications. She is also in the process of opening the Hong Kong branch of a London Gallery while her French fiancé, Sandy was born in Hong Kong and works in finance.
We met up in the French Concession, where Thomas was waiting for us with two motorcycles. Amy sat in one sidecar while Sandy rode behind the driver, which he loved. That didn’t look so comfortable to me; I was far happier to ride in Thomas’ sidecar.
No, we didn’t wear helmets. They’re not yet required by law, and we found it liberating.
We chose a comprehensive tour that included a stop in the former British Concession. There, we discovered a private enclave of English-style row houses built for middle-class Britons in 1911.
Gauging from the mailboxes at the entrances, some now hold as many as 14 families. Apparently these houses once filled the neighborhood, but most were razed to make room for other developments.
THE RIDE TO PEOPLE’S PARK
MARRIAGE MARKET IN PEOPLE’S PARK
Every Sunday, in a corner of People’s Park, there is a popular Marriage Market. Next to the lotus ponds, concerned parents, grandparents, and other relatives seek matches for their young, unmarried family members.
With a population of 1.3 billion people, China has many 20-somethings available for marriage. One study predicted that there would be a surplus of up to 33 million single men in China by about 2022.
Elders seek suitable partners by posting CVs that include the eligible bride or groom’s age, height, job, salary, education, and qualities desired in a spouse (but rarely a photo!). For example, one flyer proclaimed, “Male. Single. Only Child. Harvard Graduate, Venture Capitalist. Has House and Car.”
Apparently matchmaking isn’t always done with the young people’s consent. The focus seems to be on job and salary, rather than on personality, compatibility, or even physical attractiveness, which some consider too materialistic and pragmatic.
A male tour guide explained to me how difficult it is to be a young man looking for a spouse in China today, as you are expected to have a stable job, a car, and a house.
With the one-child policy, many parents want grandchildren to help their son financially. I often joke that a housing bubble in China will never burst, as the market will always be sustained by parents who must buy a house for their son so he can take a wife.
China now has more than 50 dating websites such as Jiayuan.com, which in 2011 had over 56 million registered users. I wonder which method has the best results: modern technology or traditional matchmaking.
OLD TOWN OF SHANGHAI
Our last stop was to Old Town, where Shanghai was first settled. During the era of foreign concessions, Old Town served as a ghetto for poor Chinese citizens. The city walls that surrounded it were torn down in 1911.
It’s still one of the poorest parts of the city—but it’s also the most ancient, so to me the most interesting. It’s rich with centuries-old history and home to a number of historic buildings, and as you wander around, you can observe the cultural traditions and way of life of Shanghai locals past and present.
Heading toward Old Town:
Old Town consists of ancient winding streets with traditional homes and stores on which modern high-rise towers are encroaching. Sadly, a new modern mini-mall was even built right across the street from one of the ancient temples, detracting from one of the most historical sites.
At the entrance, we parked our motorcycles and explored the neighborhood the best way: on foot. For the more adventurous visitors, Thomas suggests flipping a coin at every intersection to decide where to go in this maze of streets. “Getting lost is the best way to get to know such a place,” he says.
The more we ventured into the quaint side streets of Old Town, the more authentic and intriguing it became. It’s like observing life from another time, as you’ll see in these photographs.
OLD TOWN FOOD MARKET
Meandering through the narrow streets and alleys, we arrived at the local neighborhood open-air market, packed with stalls serving street food cooked on the spot and offering lots of goodies to sample.
I enjoy learning about food culture by visiting markets––seeing what produce and spices are used, observing how the local dishes are prepared, and sampling dishes both familiar and unfamiliar.
Having lived in China on and off since 2008, I’ve walked these lanes alone many times, but I felt less conspicuous walking in a group, and with Thomas leading the way, my explorations went deeper. I can’t wait for my next Shanghai Sidecar tour, as I know there is even more to discover.
A LOCAL SNACK
For a snack, we stopped at a little hole in the wall café that I might never have tried on my own (but I knew Thomas had vetted it). We snacked on Shanghai specialties such as the little dumplings called Xiao Long Bao, freshly made on the premises.
THE SILK ROAD FROM SHANGHAI TO PARIS BY SIDECAR
In spring 2011, Thomas Chabrieres and his team, calling themselves “Side by Side,” fulfilled their dream of riding sidecar motorcycles from Shanghai to Paris following the ancient trade route called the Silk Road.
In 130 days, they traversed 14 countries and rode over some of the world’s most difficult terrain and through such legendary cities as Xi’an, Tashkent, and Samarkand. On their worst day, they averaged 120 miles in 14 hours.
They have since filed an application to be entered into the Guinness World Records for the longest sidecar ride ever. I wish them the best (and want to know where I can sign up to join them on another adventurous expedition).
During this arduous quest, Thomas found an occasion to propose to fellow rider Valériane Barjhoux. Congratulations to the couple, who married in Burgundy, France this past August.
If you’re interested in taking a tour with Shanghai Sideways, visit their website at www.shanghaisideways.com.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.