Brick and mortar buildings brushed with an early 20th century flair were crowded together with reflective glass facades. The sidewalk by the metro was grossly uneven, probably laid down in a rush and worn down by urban life over the years.
A long stretch of road left me feeling dwarfed, yet intrigued. Weighted down with bags, my gait was slow, a balancing act of viewing and receiving. Not a western face to be seen, but a flurry of native Chinese waiting in nonsensical lines for that day’s duck or chuànr (lamb kebabs). Steaming metal pots of huǒ guō (hot pot), cafeteria style or hearty street food became my first introduction to Yunnan Road. With each step or turn of my head, a new sight grabbed me, until another overtook that one. This smelled like adventure.
A Shanghai excursion tends to focus on the cosmopolitan aspects of the city, like the European flair of Xintiandi or trendy Jing’an, but Yunnan Road thrusts you in the pulse of this city. The BBC describes Yunnan Road as a “mecca of delicious and authentic local food.”  I wholeheartedly agree, yet it’s more than that. I am completely the foreigner as I walk down a narrow street and observe a child at play, or a housewife hanging laundry from a fire escape. Even the darkened shops where purveyors sell fruit, tobacco or tools borders on the forbidden. In a perverse way, it’s being granted special access to a world that I shouldn’t be allowed to see.
What also draws me to this area is a hostel, the Shanghai Phoenix. I’ve become a creature of habit and stay there every time I visit. I’m the Norm Peterson of the Phoenix, I walk in and the staff recognizes me, accepting my clumsy Chinese and tendency to ask too many questions. It’s the only hostel on this street and that gives an advantage to the traveler, a window to that special access I just mentioned.