The East Coast & Shanghai
China’s East Coast is a mass of development and modernism, home to the world’s largest ports and a series of cities that move at hyper-speed. Yet there’s more to the East than what initially meets the eye. Tucked in the mountains behind the coast, the provinces of Anhui and Jiangxi revel in delivering odes of history. In just two hours you can travel from a 40th story Shanghai revolving restaurant to an ancient capital hidden in a river gorge. South-central Anhui and Jiangxi are included here as they benefit from the East Coast’s exceptional transport system, one that allows visitors to cover vast distances and paradigms in minimal time. In many ways, this area is China in a nutshell: hurtling into the future yet continuing to honor its past.
Getting Here: With its huge international airport and excellent rail connections, Shanghai is the major city and route focus. Like Beijing, direct trains and flights arrive here from all across China. Visitors to the East Coast will invariably pass through Shanghai, it serves as the center point for journeys across the region. The international and domestic airports, and the four major train stations are all on the metro line. However, the best introduction to Shanghai is to take the Maglev, the 267mph train that uses magnetic levitation technology to travel between Pudong International Airport and downtown in just seven minutes.
Getting Around: High-speed railways will form the main part of most itineraries, complimented by buses when visiting the mountain areas. This is perhaps the easiest of China’s regions to get around.
Shanghai has an excellent metro system which is relatively easy to decipher (still some Chinglish and confused faces but light years ahead of rural China). Load a Shanghai Jiaotong Card with Y100 and that should last you for a few days exploring. Taxis are ubiquitous but the cost soon adds up as Shanghai is bigger than some European countries.
The Best of Shanghai Seeing all of China’s biggest city would take a while. But with the irritation of pollution and overcrowding, sticking to two or three days helps maintain a positive impression of the city – this is the world’s most populous city (with 25 million plus residents) after all.
• Shanghai has always been China’s prosperous economic hub and this is exemplified along The Bund, a riverside strip of colonial houses and history. While most of the buildings can’t be visited, the riverfront walkway is the iconic attraction in Shanghai, especially with the view across the water to the skyscrapers of Pudong.
• Pudong is the new commercial district of Shanghai (and China), taking over from the Bund with its futuristic skyscrapers and dazzling skyline. One trip to space is at the Shanghai World Financial Center. A lightening quick elevator takes you over 100 floors high to views onto the sprawling Shanghai cityscape. Another is in the Oriental Pearl Tower. For both, it’s best to wait for a sunny moment. A Riverside Promenade runs besides the skyscrapers and is always fun when the evening lights are flashing.
• Within walking distance of The Bund, Shanghai’s Chinese history is preserved in a tiny area known as the Old City. Wooden houses dominate winding streets and the City God Temple is a well refurbished ode to forgotten times. Yu Garden is not especially peaceful but it’s a beautiful little space that’s great for people watching. A place to escape the noise is Jing’an Sculpture Park, full of tai chi groups and sculptures of animals.
• Shanghai’s more traditional attractions are all found in a hub of activity in the center of the city, the Huangpu District. It’s obscenely crowded and intense here, especially if you use the city’s biggest metro station.
◦ The excellent Shanghai Museum could take a whole day to really see, but it’s well laid out and you can select your exhibits. The galleries of Chinese art and artifacts are the most impressive.
◦ Every Chinese export you find on your own high street can be found on Nanjing Road, a chaotic street selling plastic junk, electronics, and just about everything you associate with a Chinese factory. It’s sold at cheaper prices than the shops at home.
◦ People’s Square isn’t as grand as in Beijing but makes a good job of showcasing Shanghai’s modern and old architecture. Sit on one of the benches and sip a tea sold by one of the many vendors. Bizarrely, the bird sounds are played through loudspeakers.
◦ While it doesn’t sound that exciting, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall has a wonderful scale model of the world’s most populous city. It gets most people gasping in admiration.
• Luwan and Xuhui were once known as the Paris of the East, although the evidence of France is really hidden amongst the gleaming shopping malls that dominate the suburbs. The row of streets known as the French Concession are now an alluring look at how Shanghai combines the old and new. Getting lost down the alleys of Tian Zi Fang is always amusing and a good way to experience the area. The refurbished Xintiandi Shikumen House showcases a more authentically Chinese side to the French Concession.
• Another fascinating look at Shanghai’s past is in the Jewish Ghetto, once the poorest place in the city but now a hive of temples, shopping malls, and Jewish life.
• An entirely different perspective on the history of China is on display at the Shanghai Propoganda Poster Art Center features impressive walls of Chairman Mao et al given their message to the country.
• Shanghai’s biggest temple complex, the Longhua Temple is a mix of pagodas and pavilions that have been preserved and reconstructed in the style of 242AD. It’s easily the city’s finest group of temples.
• Shanghai is big on song, dance, and evening entertainment. ERA Acrobats and Shanghai Circus World combine elements of traditional ballet, modern dance, and somersaults of Olympian proportions. Book in advance on the weekends.
• M50 Creative Park reveals a side to Shanghai that you suspected existed but didn’t know where. Covered in graffiti and sprinkled with the creative youth of the country, it’s a good place to meet the chic English speaking students of the city.
The East Coast South of Shanghai Travelers sticking to the coast tend to hurtle along on their way through to Hong Kong and South China. The coast’s ports and fuming chimneys are off putting, but a slower journey through here takes in some fascinating historic districts and unique flavors. The following are listed from north to south from Shanghai.
• Hangzhou is China’s most popular domestic tourism destination, which might explain why most foreigners give it a wide berth. The ancient Chinese capital is just one hour high speed train south of Shanghai and continues to revel in its two core industries: silk and tea. The historic attractions are mostly situated on the beautiful and vast West Lake, with boat rides taking you between them. These include temples, pagodas, cute bridges, churches, and some delightful causeways. There’s enough to spread the domestic tourists, particularly in terms of temples and pagodas. Leifeng, Lingyin, and Baochu are all beautiful and serene. The whole area around the lake is a World Heritage Site and most foreign tourists spend a day selectively combining a few of the historic attractions.
• A short bus ride from Hangzhou, Anji country takes you mystically into bamboo forests and iconic Chinese nature. This is where Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed and the landscape looks every bit as inspiring. Somewhere amongst the bamboo plantations are old forest villages although these are all very tourist facing given the bus loads of Chinese tourists that come through.
• The preserved houses of Shaoxing city are romantic in the low season, the curving roof tiles sitting above shops selling trinkets and red Chairman Mao books. It’s also a lovely place to stay and soak up old China. However, the rest of the city is an industrial mess and the old town can be hideously crowded in summer.
• Fujian Province has always been one of China’s most prosperous, a place of continual exports even before the West starting importing. An alluring set of mountains dissect the region, separating the coast from the tea growing plateaus. Taking the high speed line down the coast you pass through Fuzhou and Putian, before the historic port city of Quanzhou, an interesting place of history and flashing lights to break a journey.
• Perhaps most interesting along the series of ports is Xiamen, part island and part mainland city with special economic status. While it’s not quite Hong Kong, the experience is similar, full of sparkling skyscrapers, English speaking locals, foreign enclaves, and vibrant suburbs. Don’t expect dozens of sights, but if you’re looking for a few creature comforts and a dose of Westernization, Xiamen delivers.
• Inland Fujian requires you to move by public bus, the green mountains creating spectacular gorges and helping to protect the region’s Min heritage. While the journeys are slow here, they’re always complimented by staggering panoramas, the landscape veering from scorched sandstone to forested valleys cascading into green rivers. Note that inland Fujian can be easily combined with the mountain districts of Anhui and Jiangxi below.
◦ Mount Wuyi is far less visited than scenic areas in the south of the country, and its staggering mountains are home to serene river journeys, endless tea plantations, and some easy hiking between traditional villages. It’s easily the natural highlight of the East Coast.
◦ Recognized by UNESCO, Taining Town offers historical streets of cobblestone amidst dramatic landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place in America’s great canyon deserts. The area deserves time, particularly as the journey out here can be laborious. Traditional guesthouses offer good value and dozens of people offer walks and river trips into the surrounding area.
◦ Yongding Country is where the diversity of China’s cultural heritage is really on display. Round hakka earth houses, clans living in 300 year old houses, unusual language, and always a warm welcome to visitors seeking to explore another of China’s almost forgotten histories.
2、Heading into the Mountains
Dramatically surging from the landscape, the granite mountains of the East make for some adventures most think are reserved to much further West. This is a place for hikers and cultural explorers, somewhere that can easily lull you into spending a couple of weeks. Transport between destinations is sometimes slow, but there’s always generally a quick connection to the places directly on the coast.
• Directly west of Shanghai and connected by high speed train, Anhui Province is dissected by the Yangtze and a good stop on trips heading into Central China.
◦ A series of steep mountains rise uninhibitedly in Huangshan (known in English as Yellow Mountain). They’re often coated in mist and peeking through from the clouds. It’s a surreal expanse of green clinging to granite and a dramatic change from being in Shanghai. This is one of China’s best hiking destinations, and without hiking, you’ll struggle to get around (something that is doing wonders for preserving the area).
◦ The Haungshan range heads south and connects to Lin’an, 40 kms later. A hiking trail connects the two with hiker’s hostels on route. It takes two to three days to complete.
◦ Two World Heritage cities in Southern Anhui are an immersion in traditional China. Preserved but not refurbished, Xidi and Hongkun are both pedestrianized and take you on journeys through narrow alleys of cobblestone and allure. Xidi is less popular and therefore recommended.
• From Anhui, the mountains continue south to Jiangxi, emanating in an equally hypnotic mix of mist shrouded rocks and fairytale villages.
◦ Sanqingshan Mount is this region’s hiker’s paradise, full of weaving trails and dazzling panoramas. With similar scenery as Yellow Mountain, its accessible base is the town Shangrao. You’ll struggle to find a more spectacular mountain in China. Those with more time can explore in the surrounding Yushan County, something that will appeal to all keen hikers.
◦ The area around Mount Lushan is equally beautiful but its World Heritage status comes from being one of the old spiritual centers of China. Dozens of Buddhist and Taoist temples can be found on the edges of cliffs, some of them filled with barefoot monks. While the famous temples are the more impressive, the atmosphere of the region is best found in the remote areas not connected by cable car. While you’re here, also check out Lushan Waterfalls.
◦ Yichun is another spiritual center full of Zen temples, and its relative remoteness makes it decidedly quiet. A place to come for those seeking an escape from China.
◦ Gangzhou (not to be confused with Guangzhou) is the southernmost of the historical towns to explore. While it’s not as inherently pretty as the others, the locals are famously welcoming and laid-back, making it a good overnight stop.