Shang­hai on the Side

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Few cities in the world are as dy­namic as Shang­hai, an eye­pop­ping union of neon-clad sky­scrapers and French-colo­nial shop­houses, haute cou­ture and street art, hole-in-the-wall dumpling houses and Miche­lin-starred restau­rants. There’s his­tory and glam­our in spades, and a dizzy­ing num­ber of at­trac­tions to keep you en­ter­tained. Thanks to a stel­lar net­work of high-speed trains, Shang­hai is also the per­fect base to ex­plore smaller cities and towns that sur­round.

To the west and south­west you’ll find a num­ber of small wa­ter towns, each easy to visit on a day trip from the metropo­lis. If Xi­tang looks fa­mil­iar, that’s be­cause you’ve prob­a­bly seen it be­fore. The pe­tite town of his­toric white­washed homes and clas­si­cal Chi­nese gar­dens has made an ap­pear­ance in dozens of lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional films, in­clud­ing Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble III. Nine rivers criss­cross the town, with stone arch bridges and nar­row wil­low-lined lanes aplenty. Nearby is Zhouzhuang, one of the old­est and largest wa­ter towns in the coun­try. There are cob­bled streets to get lost in, with Min­gand Qing-dy­nasty res­i­dences, restau­rants and tea­houses, and arched stone bridges along the way. Also in the neigh­bor­hood is Zhu­ji­a­jiao, es­tab­lished 1,700 years ago as a trade hub. To­day, gra­cious build­ings line canals and rivers over­hung by 36 bridges. Stroll along North Street, with its his­toric homes turned into hand­i­craft stores, jump on a long­boat and take in the town by wa­ter, visit the Kezhi Gar­dens, known for its five-story pav­il­ion, and gaze at the de­tailed carv­ings on the town’s Qing-dy­nasty post of­fice.

Cen­turies ago, Chi­nese schol­ars cre­ated ex­quis­ite gar­dens in which to spend their days paint­ing, writ­ing po­etry, and es­cap­ing the world. These mo­ments of calm are closer than you think, with Suzhou a brisk 22-minute high-speed train ride north­west of Shang­hai. Once the cen­ter of Wu cul­ture, the leafy city is home to dozens of parks and gar­dens, a sym­phonic com­bi­na­tion of rocks, wa­ter, trees, and pavil­ions that re­flects the Chi­nese ap­pre­ci­a­tion of bal­ance and har­mony. Among these are the Clas­si­cal Gar­dens of Suzhou, a col­lec­tion of nine green spa­ces so beau­ti­ful they were added to the UNESCO World Her­itage List 10 years ago. Out­side the gar­dens there are plenty of other rea­sons to linger, from Tang-dy­nasty tem­ples ringed by gingko trees to his­toric city gates built 2,500 years ago.

The cap­i­tal of Zhe­jiang prov­ince, Hangzhou is of­ten re­ferred to as Shang­hai’s back­yard thanks to its lo­ca­tion, 180 kilo­me­ters south­west of the coun­try’s largest city (that’s just 45 min­utes on a high-speed train). The for­mer cap­i­tal of the south­ern Song dy­nasty, Hangzhou is jus­ti­fi­ably fa­mous for its beau­ti­ful scenery, specif­i­cally West Lake and the sur­round­ing pagoda-dot­ted hills (Marco Polo called it “the finest and most splen­did city in the world”). The lake cov­ers some 4,900 hectares, ringed by wil­low­lined walk­ways and back­dropped by mist-cov­ered moun­tains. It’s easy to hire a bike and ex­plore the perime­ter on two wheels, or jump on a boat or gon­dola and take in some of the lake’s small is­lands. Away from the wa­ter there are spec­tac­u­lar tea fields, clas­si­cal gar­dens, wet­lands, and parks, not to men­tion the charis­matic city it­self, which is an at­trac­tion in its own right.

A canal in Zhu­ji­a­jiao. Right: Tea gar­dens in the hills around Hangzhou. Bot­tom: A scene from the Clas­si­cal Gar­dens of Suzhou.

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