Tag Archives: Places to visit around Shanghai

Visits: Hángzhōu

22 May

Whilst Shanghai itself is not that old, it is surrounded by lots of “smaller” towns with a long history. The most famous ones are Sūzhōu and Hángzhōu (pronounced su-joe and hang-joe), which are respectively 30 minutes and an hour’s fast train ride from Shanghai.

When my parents were here, a while ago now (I have been a bit lazy), they felt like escaping from the city environment for something quieter and relaxing. So we headed to Hangzhou, which I was told is very pretty, prettier than Suzhou despite its UNESCO Wold Heritage status.

We thought we’d hire an English speaking guide at the train station to show us around and explain us a thing or two. As soon as we left the platform, we were greeted by lots of people selling their touring services. My speaking and negotiating skills were put to the test. I did well but it still took 35 minutes to get a guide (non-English speaking) and a car just for ourselves. English speakers are difficult to find at the station (I think you’ll have to hire one from a travel agency in Shanghai); also it wasn’t clear that we didn’t want to share a car and finally of course, there was no way we were going to pay 1,000 RMB (80 euros, 100 pounds) per person. So I got it down to 400 RMB for the three of us :D

Totally random: a black cab in Hangzhou!

As for the other posts on my recent visits, here’s my practical piece of advice. Although it can be pricy, I’d advise anyone with limited time in Hangzhou to hire a guide if you don’t want to walk a lot. Once you’re around the historic places, it will be very difficult for you to find a cab to get back to the station or anywhere else in town.

In Hangzhou, most places to see are around the large lake, which is located to the west of town. As everywhere in eastern China, you have to expect company anywhere you are, even if you think it’s a cunning plan to visit Hangzhou on a Friday. For a long time, it was difficult for Chinese people to move inside their own country, because infrastructure were not as developed, people couldn’t afford it but also because it was forbidden or highly regulated. In fact, you still need to give your passport number to be able to buy a train ticket to go anywhere. So they’re now making the best of it and are therefore the first tourists in their country.

Anyhow, despite the crowds, traffic around the lake and the mist, Hangzhou was beautiful and very relaxing. It’s very green and there are some mountains in the horizon which remind you that nature survives outside Shanghai. Around the lake are pagodas and houses of historic and learned figures. I’m sadly unable to give much details. I just know that Hangzhou was the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom during the 10th century. During this short time, the arts flourished and so did Buddhism, leaving us with the pagodas. Hangzhou is also known for having an Arab community, which settled in the 12th and 13th centuries when the city was an important sea trading post. Ibn Battuta visited the city in 1345 and praised its beautiful lake.

A lot of more private resorts, like the one at Mogan Shan, developed lately, catering for really quiet and relaxing weekends away from the crowds. So there’s definitely a lot more to do in Hangzhou, you just have to dedicate more than one afternoon. More on that next time hopefully…

Visits: Nánjīng

17 Apr

Until early April, the only places I had been to in China were Beijing (and surrounding tourist sites: the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs) and Shanghai. It looks like spring is the season of bank holidays in China too, gracing those who work with long weekends and making my weekdays a bit less lonesome.

With some friends, we decided to go explore Nanjing which is about an hour and a half to the northeast of Shanghai. We woke up early and headed there with the fast train that goes all the way to Beijing. According to our research and guides, there are few things to see in Nanjing. After all, it was the southern capital* for a few centuries and dynasties. The trip was all in all very interesting but unfortunately not for the reasons we had anticipated.

Various sources will point you to a few places. Although we haven’t visited all of them, if you should go to one, it is the Ming Tombs. Yes as in Beijing, Nanjing’s got its own version of it. In many ways, they are similar to those outside Beijing, only perhaps smaller. But the site is beautiful, especially with all the plum trees in full bloom (which entitled us to a discount on entry tickets – plum tree festival or something), the buildings are impressive and the promenade from one tomb to the other very pleasant. Like for many historic sites in China, there is no available explanation on the site and you have to put up with aberrant things like a kids’ entertainment park within the premises of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But hey, it’s China and compared to what we saw before, it isn’t such an eyesore.

At the Ming Tombs

Golden tiles, colour of the emperors

That’s for the must. What you should by all means avoid is the Purple Mountain. It may have been an important site at some point, but now it’s just an attraction park for Nanjing’s inhabitants to escape the city and picnic or play cards. Thankfully, we took the cable car all the way to the top and back down (our initial plan was to walk) and then strolled from absurdity to absurdity, i.e. bad modern structures and sculptures supposedly spiritual or reminiscent of important people. The only thing we got out of it was probably some fresh air for our soiled Shanghai dwellers’ lungs.

At the Purple Mountain

The ex-neo White Cloud...

Back in town, the Linggu Temple is not really worth your while. It now feels more like a roundabout than a Buddhist Temple set in a park. Clearly we didn’t have the time to see everything, there are a few museums and other spots to check out.

That’s for the bad stuff. I’m not trying to undermine Nanjing or its heritage, but I can’t help complain about creating fake heritage sites and not emphasising properly (through information or design) those sites that are of true importance.

Now what I found of real interest is that Nanjing is actually a lively and pleasant city. At the moment, it has “only” 8 million inhabitants but clearly the authorities are foreseeing massive expansion of urban areas. We arrived at the southern train station which is in the middle of nowhere. However, it is surrounded by construction sites and I’m sure in a couple of years or so a whole neighbourhood will have emerged out of the ground. Another thing about the station, it is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE. It must be the size of two football pitches. You could organise the Athletics Championship in that station.

The arrival hall at the station

The pick-up area

Heading back to Shanghai

The departure hall

Access to the platform

Also the fast train’s tracks to Nanjing are elevated along the whole journey. It makes you realise that the level of investment in infrastructure from the government is phenomenal. I guess that’s where most of the money is going, along with defence, given that taxpayers pay high taxes but don’t really benefit from any social or economic security.

* nán = south, jīng= capital; běi = north … Běijīng = northern capital

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