SHANGHAI - This city lives up in the air.

It is there you find the Oriental Pearl Tower stretching 1,535 feet into the sky, the seemingly endless number of 50-story business buildings, and the high-tech Maglev train whizzing by at a cool 200 m.p.h.

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But it's also where you see the Shanghainese putting their laundry out to dry, threaded on long bamboo poles extending from their windows. It's where, on Shaanxi Lu, you can buy assorted cuts of meat hanging from a corner traffic light. And it's where you'll find millions of modest people living a modest life in faded apartment buildings about 15 stories high.

To me, Shanghai is filled with charming contradictions. In China's largest city, it's easy to find a centuries-old park planted with sweet-smelling osmanthus trees on one corner and a new, brightly lit Starbucks on the other.

Old and new China are duking it out in this city of more than 19 million, and it turns out that both are winning.

I spent six whirlwind days here during spring break, taking note of these juxtapositions while I researched stories for my International Reporting class at Pennsylvania State University. Fourteen other journalism students and professors also made the 14-hour, 7,000-mile trip, which totally eclipsed my previous travel highlight - a three-day visit to Toronto.

One of my favorite spots was Huaihai Lu, the heart of the city's former French Concession, or settlement, and home to swanky shopping outlets with names such as "Dolphin Gulf Nail-beauty Franchise Store." Off this avenue, I bought the coolest pair of high-top sneakers at a tiny, closetlike store called Culture Matters.

A few streets over, on Nanjing Lu, I felt as though I had been transported to a Chinese-speaking Times Square, with the modern buildings speckled with neon lights.

Down this street is People's Square, the most impressive collection of shops I've ever seen. The pedestrian-only area is filled with stores as far as the eye can see, with hundreds of people toting shopping bags and riding escalators to reach the 10 or so floors. There are stores for everything - clothing, shoes, electronics - with many of the signs in English and Chinese. Some were familiar: Roxy and French Connection clothes and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf for a latte.

The modern shops are a short metro ride but a far cry from the Bund, which was my very first stop in Shanghai. I felt as though I had taken a wrong turn, crossed several country borders and ended up in Europe. The buildings that line the Huangpu River look as though they were plucked from 19th-century Germany. In fact, the area was filled with European trade companies in the mid-1800s, bolstering Shanghai's position as a trade center.

And standing tall across the river in the Pudong district is the Oriental Pearl Tower, its futuristic columns and spheres housing a 20-room hotel and three observatories. Its TV tower soars above scores of high-rise buildings dotted with bright lights late into the night.

From the top of one of the 10-story buildings along the river, I got a sense of just how far and high the city stretches.

Yet it was easy to get around, thanks to 12 expansive metro lines, more than 1,000 bus lines, and cabs colored yellow, blue, and green. The metro was my favorite - it's an attraction all its own. The metro stop at the Shanghai Railway Station offers a subterranean shopping area with people hawking cell phones, jewelry, cat figurines, and shirts with jumbled English phrases such as "Lovely Scat."

The typical Shanghainese does not speak English, but the metro has complete translations on all of its signs. It's also very affordable, with the highest fare for one line ride about $1.50.

Riding Line 9, I found my way to Caobao Lu and historic Guilin Park - a place that exudes the China I had read about in history class, a miniature of the traditional Chinese gardens.

The beauty of this park is not only in the sprawling gui, or osmanthus, trees, but also the people it attracts. Four retired locals sitting at a table in the park's main courtyard invited me to tea. Surrounded by the budding trees, we talked - through a translator - about the city they've seen hold tight to tradition while embracing innovation and change.

Lu Mingqiang and his wife, Lu Cuiying, both now graying, have spent their entire lives in Shanghai.

"Fifty years ago, people just lived to eat and be with their families," Mingqiang said. "Our lives are now colorful."

In the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, the couple was sent to western provinces to work in the fields and study, helping to develop the more rural parts of the country. They were proud of doing their duty to their country - they said they were sometimes nostalgic for the red communist flowers people used to wear on their lapels.

But China had its "dark corners," like any developing country, they said, and they were happy to see the strides that have been made since then.

"The opening of China is very good," Mingqiang said. "There are more choices, and our lives are more vivid."

And they were looking forward to hosting thousands of visitors drawn here by the 2010 World Expo, which started May 1 and will run through Oct. 31.

On that sunny afternoon, I got a glimpse of their Shanghai.

I mastered only two expressions in Chinese - Xie xie (thank you) and ni hao (hello) - and I spent less than a week in the city, but Shanghai taught me a lot more than that.

From afar, it looks as though Shanghai is confused about what it should be. Is it a ward of Chinese traditionalism, or is it a catalyst for an economic change that will reverberate throughout the nation?

The answer is easy. Just look up.

Shanghai World Expo 2010

To Americans, he looks like a cross between Gumby and a tooth. To the Chinese people, he's the character that means "people."

He's Haibao, symbol of Shanghai World Expo 2010, the big exposition that opened May 1 and runs through October. And his image is everywhere.

Official merchandise stores for the Expo are in multiple locations, including the airport. You can buy Haibao dolls, keychains, magnets, candy boxes, books. Big Haibao statues are all over town.

The Expo is expected to attract 70 million visitors, 93 percent of them Chinese.

The sprawling site on both sides of hazy Shanghai's Huangpu River is dominated by a big, red inverted pyramid that is the China pavilion.

Like world expositions before it, it's devoted to displays of new inventions and the grandness of human technical endeavor. This Expo's theme is improving life for urban dwellers. That's important in China, which has 130 cities of more than 1 million. (The United States has 10 cities that large.)

A record 185 countries are participating, as are major U.S.-based corporate sponsors such as Dow Chemical and General Motors, which is partnering with Chinese automaker SAIC to show off electric vehicles.

The American ticket source for the Shanghai Expo is Peregrine Travel Group (www.worldexpochina.net). If you are in China during the Expo, you should be able to buy tickets at a kiosk there.

Getting there

Air France and Continental fly to Shanghai from Philadelphia with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,731. Continental and United fly nonstop from Newark Liberty International Airport; the lowest recent fare was about $1,667.

- Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press

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Snapshots of Shanghai

Strangest foods: Chicken claw, goose neck

Currency: Yuan (pronounced yu-en; also called RMB), $1 equals about 6.8 yuan

Favorite bar: Logo (www.logoshanghai.net)

Most-spotted U.S. fast-food chain: KFC

Favorite mistranslation: "The grass is smiling at you, please detour."

Favorite store: Culture Matters (www.fromsh.com)

Most frequently asked question by Chinese: "What is it like in America?"

Question I asked the most often: "Excuse me, which way is it to . . .."

How often I got lost: It seemed as though it was my business to get lost about every day. The worst was late one night, when a group of us were on our way back to the hotel with little cash and no clear idea of which way to go. After trying two taxi drivers, who took us to the wrong place, we began walking. After about 20 minutes and lots of arguing, we made it.

Handiest 14-hour plane-ride trick: A good sleeping pill.

Best souvenir: High-top Freiyue sneakers, made in China.

- Elizabeth Murphy EndText