Monica Pitrelli explores Shanghai and beyond without getting caught in the tourist rush.
There are certain places that must be seen at dawn. Hangzhou’s famed West Lake is one of them. It isn’t often that I’m up in time to catch the hour when nature’s first light slowly dissolves the night sky. There is a peace here – a peace that is magnified in the midst of temples and tea plantations.
But our reason to forgo sleep this morning is not entirely poetic – we’re here out of practicality, too. Of the 72 lakes in China named West Lake, this is the most popular. In just a few short hours, legions of domestic tourists will descend upon the water’s edge, negating the reason many venture here in the first place.
At 6am, my husband and I step aboard a small, covered boat. A middle-aged woman with an honest smile is at the helm. She speaks no English. With a few thrusts of her oar, we enter the placid waters and begin a journey past pagodas, lotus gardens and arched stone bridges. Apart from a few enterprising elders practising tai chi on the shore, the lake is mostly deserted at this hour. Though I don’t know it yet, this will come to be the greatest moment of the trip. It is China as I had hoped it would be.
This morning’s boat ride was arranged by the Amanfayun, as were the previous night’s tickets to Impression West Lake, a spectacular outdoor performance on the lake directed by Zhang Yimou, the mastermind behind the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. A downpour started just as the show began, but the hotel had arranged for us to sit in the VIP box of a nearby boat. Best of all, we were alone.
The Amanfayun is no ordinary bricks-and-mortar hotel (see snaps in the gallery above). In a valley of thick forest 20 minutes west of Hangzhou, the property is set within the remains of an old tea village. Guests stay in one of 42 unique rooms located along a long narrow path – a path that connects a Buddhist monastery to the sacred Lingyin Temple.
The guest rooms are at least a century old –some over 300 years old – as are the buildings that house the property’s five restaurants and two-storey library, Fuyan Place, where we stopped at every evening for dessert and a pot of tea. The spa lies up a meandering stone path, past thickets of chestnut and osmanthus trees; it’s the perfect spot for a bamboo massage, its specialty.
Our room, a sizeable space with a living area and dressing room, is an intriguing mix of rusticity and luxury – think raw wood and minimalist décor together with heated floors, dual vanities and a Bose stereo whispering the gentle sounds of a mandolin.
Tourists travel to Hangzhou for three main reasons – West Lake, longjing tea and ancient temples. There are seven temples and monasteries within walking distance ofthe Amanfayun, and from certain spots on the property, you can hear the monks chanting before dawn.
A wise traveller never lets Hollywood set her expectations. But Hollywood didn’t produce Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And one too many viewings on my part resulted in an unnatural fixationwith the bamboo forests of the Zhejiang province. So from Hangzhou we caught a train to Moganshan National Parkto stay a few days in the Tianmu mountain range.
Ms Cheng is waiting for us at the train station. She is the chef, chauffeur and concierge at the Mystic Mogan Boutique Hotel, a beautiful three-storey villain the park. Unfortunately, her English is about as good as our Mandarin – neither of us spoke a word of the other’s tongue. But Ms Cheng knows just enough to bridge the gap – “Chinese food?” We nod our heads in affirmation as she begins preparations for a wonderful meal of fresh veggies and lean meats.
As we are the only guests, we settle in for the one thing that people do on the mountain – relax. The Wikitravel page for Moganshan suggests tourists enjoy the fresh air, read and “be at one with the forest”. So we did – sleeping in, hiking, reading on the patioand playing a heated match of the Wonders of the World edition of Monopoly. The board game was made in China, and my husband’s “Drand Pyramid of Gizen” isn’t enough to save him when I acquire Australia’s famed “Large Coral Barrier”.
As the former summer get away for Shanghai’s colonial elite, Moganshan is home to many early 20th-century European-style villas that were abandoned after the Japanese invasion during World War II. Today they sit in their former grandeur as lonely testaments of an era gone by. We explore a few late one evening and stumble upon one of the few tourist sites in the area – the “temporary lodging” of Chairman Mao. Apparently, he napped there once. Once. And now the house, with its with bedroom portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin, is preserved as a place of national importance.
Afternoon tea at The Peninsula Shanghai is an institution. Tea just tastes better when sippedundercrystal chandeliers with the accompaniment of a live string quartet. Over delicate finger sandwiches, we assess the day thus far – shopping in the French Concession – excellent; stinky tofu for lunch – never again; a stop at the world’s tallest observation deck at the Shanghai World Financial Center– a waste of time (a sign on the first floorhad warned us that pollution levels were “Bad”).
This is my first stay at a Peninsula hotel; it’s one of only nine in the world. Frommer’s has appropriately labelled it “the best splurge hotel” in the city, and our deluxe suitelives up to the hype – a ultra-luxespace with attached living and dressing rooms, a one-touch “instant spa” button to control music and lighting (accessible from the bathtub, no less) and free unlimited worldwide telephone calls.
This evening we explore the back alleys of the Old Town. A local woman made us promise we would – “if you don’t, you’ll miss the real Shanghai”. After a drink at the Waldorf Astoria’s Long Bar, we head for dinner at the renowned modern French restaurant, Mr and Mrs Bund. The Rookie Menu isa collection of dishespared down from the 270 offered on the regular menu. It includes the restaurant’s famous lemon and lemon tart – a confection with an edible lemon peel “crust” that took a full five years to perfect.The food is fabulous, and the atmosphere casually cool. Even here, we manage to avoid the dinner rush; 7pm reservations are considered early, as the party doesn’t really get goinguntil the DJ arrives around 11pm.
Last stop – Sir Elly’s Terrace, the Peninsula’s rooftop bar. As crowds swirl fourteen floors below, we steal away to a private corner to enjoy one last look at the Bund and the skyline of Pudong.
How to Get There…
Fly direct from Singapore on Jetstar or travel by car (three hours) or train (55 minutes) from Shanghai. The trains are quick, pleasant andeconomical ($25); three to five trains leave Shanghai’s Honggiao Station for Hangzhou every hour.
From Hangzhou to Moganshan National Park:
Take a bus (1 hour) or catch a train (45 minutes) for the 96km journey from Hangzhou to Deqing Station. (Ask your hotel in Hangzhou to help you make arrangements.) This train is considerably cheaper ($2.60) and less cleanthan the one from Shanghai to Hangzhou. The park is a 30-minute drive from Deqing Station.
From Moganshan to Shanghai:
Book a private car (2.5 hours, around $200) or take a bus (4 hours, $14). You can also return to Hangzhou by private car (around $70) and take the high-speed train from there.
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