This is a good one!
Look I get it, if you have been to Shanghai and you want to know where it is at and you got the cute little Lonely Planet recommendation list, then you have seen it. Zhabei is not even in those 9 top picks…
You know why? Zhabei is now part of JingAn and you know that, because you live here and you have been to that freshly renovated golden temple. You never really cared about Zhabei, because it is the real hidden gem.
I was born in it, raised in it. You merely adopted Zhabei, JingAn pffffffff…
Nothing to see there? Move on? Come on!
This is the WikiVoyage page. It’s laughable, it says there is not much there – there is.
Word on the street is that Zhabei suffered from poor decision making and needed the aid of the richer JingAn. This is where I live now. Can’t see why that happened.
I lived in Zhabei for roughly three years. The motto of the district is: ‘Zhabei the place to be’. You need to become a bit local, you need some local friends, I’d say two. You’ll get rid of one eventually because he borrows 10 RMB every time you are about to go home, because he didn’t bring his wallet and want’s to buy a beer and some smokes. He does that every time you hang out. He also invites you over when he is at ‘parties’ and once you arrive turns out the friends have all left an it’s only him, maybe another friend. This happens a lot. He might also introduce you to other friends, because you are now the token foreign friend and you will eventually realize that you are the way back to his friends, that all know how he is, you will figure that out. Oh! He also might invite you for dinner and then forgets his wallet. Cut him loose at some point.
On the plus side you get to know other friends and you get shown cool places – like the Zhabei gym.
The Zhabei gym is in walking distance from Line 8 ZhongXing Road. Find it yourself, you are a Shanghai insider and no one gets to know Zhabei with a Lonely Planet. Walk around. Have a beer on the way, explore!
Inside the Zhabei gym they host a Chinese TV show, don’t ask me which one that is, we climbed once from the muscle gym through to where the show is filmed and my friends decided to walk out with the crowd, I was on the way, then noticed that I don’t look like I brought a ticket to that and climbed back into the muscle gym, it gave my friends a good laugh, because after explaining what happened they agreed that I would have been suspicious. This is how involved you have to get with the Zhabei crowd that they completely forget you are a foreigner. Beat that!
Behind the Zhabei gym there is a dorm and some study rooms for Chinese Powerlifter kids. Cool kids. There is also the muscle gym I mentioned before it is run by a former bodybuilder, he is old now, but pictures on the wall show his former fame. His friends come by and smoke and talk loud, they mostly sit on the bench press bench. Not as cool as the kids. There are also waiters and other funny folk ‘working out’ there. The dress code is jeans, shirt is optional, but collared shirt preferred for the freedom of movement. Hard to one up the guy on the butterfly machine with the roller-skates, he had red jeans and a collared shirt.
Cornering the gym is a lamb leg restaurant. Massive lamb legs! They are cheap and feed one big person and come with optional side dishes. They can also feed a birthday party – I tried and highly recommend it. You are in Zhabei now – not at the bund!
Half a beer away in ZhongXing road is my favorite Chinese spa. They will ask you for your passport, but you are not spending the night, so you might want to explain that every time you go, until they know you. It’s gender separated and it came with a body rub from a dude with a hot, kinda hard towel. They lift your package and some point and rub your whole body – like every corner. It’s an experience and also not included in most tour guides. Also in there: a Sauna, showers, a hot room to play that Chinese chess game, two pools with jet streams, shaving equipment (it’s dull), toothbrushes and shampoo. You can then dry yourself up, weigh yourself, clean your ears and heard up to the third floor where they have the mixed sex chill section with a little tea place, some recliners with TVs, Ashtrays and a small shop where you would need to get a cold beer. This is the best beer you will have that day! Guaranteed!
My tattoo guy is in Zhabei as well, he speaks a little bit of English and is an all around cool dude. You can hang out at his shop, get a tattoo and marvel at people getting a tiny rose or a name on their hands for a first tattoo. His shop is close to Line 1 Nanchang or North Zhongshan Road – it’s about the same distance. That is 2 beers from the Zhabei gym.
You will be special and know a part of the city only a few people know. Recently I was doing a beer walk with a dear friend of mine and we walked from JingAn to Putou then to Zhabei and back to JingAn. Zhabei is, to this day, the liveliest part of the city and it’s raw, it’s unpolished, it has cool Ayi’s in the Family Marts, Buddies and Lawsons you can get to know that are happy to comment on your visits and even let safe you a Cent or two if you don’t have the right small change. This is how magical Zhabei is. A little bit of tier 88 in a tier 1 city. Zhabei – the place to be!