Indagare member M. B. recently visited a lesser-known region of China before spending a few days in Shanghai. Here are her impressions from the trip.
I highly recommend intrepid travelers visit the Anhui Province for its beautiful UNESCO World Heritage towns and spectacular mountain scenery. The Pig’s Heaven Inns were hands-down the most interesting hotels I have ever stayed in. There is one in Bishan and another in Xidi, and I would suggest spending a couple days in each, as they are very different in feel.
The Xidi Pig’s Heaven Inn is located in a very old (Ming Dynasty) UNESCO town, which is really well preserved and still inhabited. We arrived after dark and the town was pitch black, with no streetlights. We were standing in the dark silence when suddenly we saw two small lights approaching us. After a moment passed, we realized it was two women carrying candles to greet us and lead us to the hotel. This was not a staged show to exemplify their rustic quality; this was their mode of getting around at night. We were blown away to be led down a very small cobblestoned street and into a Ming Dynasty home, the former home of an aristocrat. The hotel was pretty rustic in some ways, for example it had no central heating and the electricity would sometimes go out, but the charm of the staff coupled with the charm of the place made up for any small inconveniences. The only downside was that their English was pretty much non-existent, and I am not sure what I would have done with out my two Mandarin speaking friends.
The other Pig’s Heaven Inn in Bishan is larger and more formal than its sister property in Xidi. (We heard a rumor that parts of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ were filmed there.) This hotel, too, was clearly once the home of an aristocrat. We loved borrowing their bikes and enjoyed having a guide for our entire visit.
We had a great time climbing the Yellow Mountain, but it was rather crowded with Chinese tourists. They were mostly in tour groups with leaders who would shout into megaphones non-stop. This just made us hike the stairs going up the mountain even faster! On the way up the mountain—which is all stairs—tourists can buy water in addition to all kinds of unusual souvenirs (for example, smooth stones in boxes of water). I recommend buying a walking stick at the base of the mountain. They cost almost nothing and are quite helpful. Also, be forewarned that bottle water costs more the higher up the mountain you go. As we were hiking, we were continually passed (going in both directions) by men carrying large amounts of weight on their shoulders. We learned that despite there being three cable cars servicing the top of the mountain, everything is still brought up and down the mountain by these fellows.
We stayed at one of these hotels on the mountain, supposedly the best in the area. However, the building was in poor condition, and walls are paper-thin. Once we returned to the base of the mountain, our guide drove us about two hours to Hangzhou. This town is known for its beautiful lake and having best green tea in the country. We visited a tea plantation and then went to the lake, which was filled with young couples posing for photos in rented western-style wedding wear.
We then took the train to Shanghai, and very happily checked into the Waldorf Astoria. I enjoy adventure travel, but after so many days in the countryside, the hotel’s luxurious guest rooms and bathrooms (and the heated toilet seats!) were amazing. My room had an amazing view overlooking the water. The Waldorf is very stylish and upscale, yet very comfortable. The sublime breakfast offered the best buffet I have ever had. While their English wasn’t always great, the staff was lovely. We were not alone in thinking the Waldorf is the best hotel in town; we spoke with an ex-pat who swears it is her favorite in Shanghai.
We basically did (or didn’t do) everything Indagare recommended and felt we got a lot out of our stay. Here are some tips for other Indagare members planning a trip to China:
- Do not ride up the Pearl Tower. It was a terrible experience. I spent hours being herded like cattle just to ride up the elevator, which smells terrible. Plus, the glass is so smudged that visitors can hardly take photos. For an alternative place to see great views, I recommend getting a drink at the Grand Hyatt’s Cloud 9 bar.
- Don’t miss the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.
- If you getting clothes made, don’t expect to pay more than a fraction of the asking price.
- Shanghai is surprisingly safe. Visitors should obviously be cautious, but overall, the crime rate is quite low.
- Take an early-morning walk down the Bund to see many locals practicing Tai Chi.
- Do not trust the traffic lights. Drivers and bikers will constantly fly through red lights. Always look both ways and never expect the driver to stop for pedestrians.
- The Confucian Temple was one of the coolest sites in Shanghai and is definitely not a tourist trap. It is in a random area, but is worth the visit, especially as I was the only one there when I went.
- The Jade Temple is a tourist trap. It is worth seeing, but know that it will be crowded. Do not buy tea or mugs at the teahouse in the temple. You can buy the same items from any of the street vendors for a fraction of the price.
- The very modern Xintiandi is a really cool place to explore. As is Shanghai’s “Soho.”
- I wasn’t overly impressed with the Shanghai Museum. I would recommend spending less time in the museums, and more time exploring the city.
- I highly recommend the tour of Jewish Shanghai. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. (www.shanghai-jews.com)