Last month in a period of three weeks, I visited five China cities. This trip could be sum up in three phrases: physical exhilarating, cultural enriching and geo-political awareness enlightening.The visit included UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Huangshan (often referred by Chinese as “The number one mountain under the Heavens”), the ancient Chinese Village of Hongcun, the classical gardens of Suzhou, the burial ground of the founder and first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty – Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum and Hangzhou’s West Lake (featured on the RMB 1 dollar note).
Despite making this trip by myself, I never felt alone. I had the good fortune of travelling and interacting with many kind, helpful and interesting people (backpacking tourists and local residents) in every city along my journey. There is always a friend company in a hostel or along the streets. Such are the joys of backpacking 🙂
My travel began from Anhui Province (Tunxi, Huangshan, Yixian, Shexian) to Zhejiang Province (Hangzhou) to Jiangsu Province (Suzhou and Nanjing) and finally China’s largest city – Shanghai. These authentic sights and the opportunities to interact with the local residents are captured in the following highlights.
A. Shanghai – Huangshan Overnight Sleeper Train
My journey began when I caught an soft-sleeper overnight train from Shanghai to Huangshan (K8418, cabin interior). During the 15 hours journey, I chatted and shared my travel plans with many other travellers from different countries including Japan, USA, Sri Lanka and of course China. Soon I got acquainted with a young Chinese couple and we decided to hike Huangshan together.
After a long train ride, I decided to stay overnight in Tunxi town (where the Huangshan railway station) was located. I stayed in Old Street Youth Hostel, where the area’s old architectures were preserved and now transformed into tourism-oriented enclave.
Huangshan in Anhui’s province is one of China’s most scenic spots. The mountain range is characterised by numerous gravity defying odd-shaped pine trees, steep trails, deep gorges with lush greenery and grotesque rock formations representing the arch-typical Chinese landscape (shanshui) paintings.
With my new founded Chinese friends, we began our 2 days hike from the Western Steps (also known as the back entrance) and exit from the Eastern Steps as recommended by the hostel.
Apart from the Huangshan, there are another two popular tourist attractions which can be easily managed by oneself without booking those overpriced guided tours. They are Hongcun village and the Tangyue Memorial Archways. Just travel like the locals and use the long distance public buses from Huangshan long distance bus terminal to get to Yixan and Shexian counties respectively.
D1. Hongcun Village
Fans of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movie must make a trip to Hongcun. Part of the movie was filmed in this village. Hongcun and (nearby) Xidi are two ancient Chinese villages listed in UNSECO World Heritage.
Hongcun with its water features and distinct Anhui architecture has becomes a popular subject amongst many Chinese art students. In 2004, this cherished village was commemorated as part of a China Post “Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui” stamp series.
D2. Tangyue Memorial Archway The Tangyue Memorial Archway is a series of seven arches built between the Ming and Qing dynasties. These arches commemorated the virtues of loyalty, filial piety, women’s chastity, justice, moral integrity and charity by the village inhabitants and served as a reminder for future generation.
E. Hangzhou – West Lake, Lingyin Temple, Longjing Village
Around the prosperous city of Hangzhou lies one of China’s most popular attraction, the famed West Lake or Xihu. The beauty and the wealth of this city led to a claim that Hangzhou“beyond dispute (is) the finest and the noblest in the world” attributed to Marco Polo.
When I was finally able to pull myself from West Lake sights, I visited Lingyin Temple (Temple of the Soul’s Retreat), one of China’s largest monastery and Longjing Village. Longjing Village is the famed green tea growing area that grows the popular Longjing tea (龙井茶). During my visit, I was invited to a farmer’s actual house and had the opportunity to sample the different grades of Longjing tea.
上有天堂, 下有苏杭 Above is heaven, below is Suhang (Suzhou and Hangzhou)
This famous saying praises the beauties of Suzhou and Hangzhou. Suzhou often referred as the “Venice of the East” for its gardens, stone bridges and canals across the city.
The beauty of Suzhou’s classical gardens was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage under the “Classical Gardens of Suzhou”. These gardens include Master of the Net Garden. The Master of the Net garden is the smallest of the classical gardens but because of its size, it was easy to appreciate the beauty of the garden.
Nanjing is also home to one of the largest concentration of tertiary institutions in China. This city is also the final resting places of major statesmen in Chinese history including Sun Yat-sen (founder of the post-imperial China) and Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang, founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty).
Shanghai, China’s largest city and the symbol of China’s growing economic stature on the world’s stage. Ever since the days of the Western nations trade concessions settlements, Shanghai has been one of Asia’s financial and trading hub.
The modern Shanghai is now a buzzing, vibrant and energetic metropolis. The energy of this city is simply tremendous.There is something for everyone in this city.
For arts fans, the Shanghai Museum is a treat. This museum housed an mind boggling first class collection of Chinese arts including pottery, ancient currency and sculptures. To appreciate the origins and the development of this city, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre is a must, even just to see the mini model of the city sprawl.
Fans of la mien and xiao long baos, you can finally have one’s fill in Shanghai. While you’re there, get introduced to shenjian too, a dish similar to xiao long. The Shanghainese cuisine is more noodles and bread based. Let’s just say, I had my fill of xiao long and dumplings for a very long time.
For the defenders of the world’s economy (aka shopaholic), after your saving rounds in Ginza or Fifth Avenue, you will have your hands full in Huaihai Lu and Nanjing Lu.