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.
Yunnan’s visual stimulation is a lengthy walk.
Creative construction practices abound.
A testament to modern and historic blends of styles. Building; circa 1858.
Watching the action.
Here’s a glimpse at the Shanghai Phoenix Hostel – the only hostel on this road.
Where everybody knows my name.
Central theme of the hostel.
The rooftop patio — perfect spot to catch sun rays and views of the city.
Ze roof garden!
A modestly stocked bar.
I’ve nicknamed this one Silverweed, after Watership Down. Remember him? He’s the rabbit that recited poetry.
Since I had to mention literature…
My Favorite Restaurant
Another vital reason why I stay at the Shanghai Phoenix? It’s physically attached to a restaurant that makes local food to die for.
I’ve named this establishment the Terracotta-Screw-With-My-Head-Restaurant because when you enter there’s no floor beneath you – gah! But you don’t fall through, thankfreakingod. Then you realize you’re standing firmly on glass and below are miniature statues on display:
The real name (I think) is Xintaotao, but don’t quote me.
It’s rare to see a foreign face here except hostel guests.
Tools of the eating trade.
My meal that day was spinach noodles coated in oil, with green onions and Làjiāo.
What Yunnan Road is heralded for – far and wide.
A few doors from the Shanghai Phoenix is a hot pot restaurant. This can be found outside.
At the corner from the hostel, garbage disposal gone mental?
Nah, he’s the reason.
Chuànr — a popular street food originating from the Islamic peoples of Uyghur. Did you know there are 32,849,343 Muslims in China?
One thing I’m always wrestling with are the numerous queues. Jaysus.
What they so desperately wanted. Milk tea with red beans.
Care for some fried fish fillet with special sauce?
The compulsion to photograph all of it is endless.
Imagine this exotic sea creature in your soup!
My Top Choice Yunnan Restaurant
Remember this name.
Yunnan cuisine is an amalgamation of several ethnic groups, the prominent one being Han Chinese. Standard dishes can be difficult to pinpoint.
All I can tell you is I had a unique dining experience and the cost was under 200 RMB.
For starters, this was described as native ‘greens.’ Tasted like thorny kale.
Say this ten times fast — wild acanthopanax with garlic.
A common characteristic of Yunnan cuisine is the use of flowers. Braised fish with a spicy gravy = pop music in my mouth.
I ended this gastronomy love fest with buckwheat cake. It was so moist, it melted quickly on my tongue. It even came out in a bamboo steamer. Sooo Chinese.
Did I entice you to visit? Not to be arrogant, of course I did.
How to get there:
- Take the metro from Line 1 at the People’s Square Station and transfer to Line 8. On Line 8, get off at Dashijie Station.
- Leave by Exit 2 (go past the McDonald’s and a Watson’s drugstore). Once you exit to the street, turn left and walk by a couple of bakeries and a Kedi store.
- Keep walking until you reach the end of the street. An ICBC bank should be across from you. This is Yunnan Road. Turn left and start your culinary walk to bloatedness and frequent bathroom trips.
If you wish to stay at the Shanghai Phoenix:
Address: No. 17, Yunnan Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai, P.R.China
Tel: +86-21-63288680 Fax: +86-21-63113009
Dorms: from 50 RMB to 60 RMB per night
Private rooms: from 100 RMB to 200 RMB per night.
Tip: Be sure to greet the manager, Snog. And yup, that’s his name. He’s a friendly guy.
My last stay at the Shanghai Phoenix was sponsored, but it took me being a guest for a year and a half before I decided to partner with them. I take my sweet time.