Away from the bright lights of the big city, within a short day trip from Shanghai – a bus, train or ferry away – there are myriad places waiting to be discovered, where you can immerse yourself in a different side of China.
Inexpensive, easy, and instant relief from the hustle of and bustle of the metropolis, there are local foodie specialties to savor too. So pack a day bag, pick a destination and go along your merry way.
(But remember, you might want to wait until after Golden Week has been and gone, unless you fancy bumping into everyone and his brother along the way.)
Gaze southwest and you’ll discover Hangzhou, just a short ride away – just an hour on a fast G train from Hongqiao. (A slightly cheaper D train will take you marginally longer.)
Celebrated as the location of the West Lake – a huge expanse of freshwater that attracts crowds and crowds every public holiday – Hangzhou is the prospering capital of Zhejiang province and the southern end point of the Grand Canal. One of the 7 capitals of ancient China, the city was a favorite of no less a figure than Chairman Mao who, considering it a second home, enjoyed the odd dip in the aforementioned lake.
Hangzhou is also considered to be a foodie destination, with signature dishes inspired by the flora and fauna of the lake. It would be a crime not to taste xihu cuyu – carp in a vinegary sauce – reportedly a favorite of ex-Premier Zhou Enlai. And while you’re at it, the curiously named ‘Beggar’s Chicken’ – jiao hua ji – is a whole chicken baked in clay, a method of cooking supposedly discovered by some poor down-and-out who had no other way of cooking his bird.
Lu Xun fun
Hangzhou old news? Stay on the train for one more stop and you’ll rock up in Shaoxing, an ancient water town that’s a hugely popular attraction for Chinese tourists thanks to one Lu Xun, China’s most famous 20th century author.
This secret city, virtually hidden from expats’ view, is also famed for Shaoxing wine, a beverage akin to good sherry. You’ll also want to be munching on the traditional snacks that accompany the drink (and which feature in Lu Xun’s short stories). Sip wine as boatmen row by, grazing on on huixiang dou – cold fava (broad) beans flavored with fennel – and ‘fragrant’ chou doufu, aka stinky tofu. Served with a side of chili dipping sauce, approach the latter with confidence – think pungent cheese with a crisp, fried outside and a pillowy soft inside with a powerful umami hit.
Beside the seaside
Still not interested? Stay on the train past Hangzhou and Shaoxing and arrive at one of China’s oldest cities: the port town of Ningbo. With a mere 7,000 years of history (and 6 million people), Ningbo is a lively place.
Famed for fresh seafood, Ningbo can offer a variety of catches, but be sure to try the yellow croaker, wrapped in thin bean curd sheets then fried. Fupi bao huangyu is a crispy, golden, fishy delight: crunchy on the outside, moist and tender within, dip chunks into a side of vinegar before you pop them in your mouth. And of course, pair with a crisp, cool beer.
Just a little further out by ferry from Ningbo lies Putuoshan – one of four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, and home to the freshest local seafood from Zhejiang’s coast. Putuoshan also offers a 30 meter tall towering Guanyin statue to ward of the bad spirits of the sea.
You don’t need to head down to Ningbo to get there, either. The island is accessible from Shanghai’s far southeastern Nanpu Bridge ferry station by bus or by speedboat via Luchao Harbor. Once you arrive, there’s a plethora of temples to visit and, if it’s getting a little late, enjoy the hospitality of one of numerous guesthouses, all of which serve the catch of the day from local fishing boats.
City of canals and gardens
By far one of the most convenient day trips from Shanghai, the ‘Venice of the Orient’ – as Suzhou is often called – is home to a network of small waterways and canals, and spotted with a number of traditional Chinese style gardens with rockeries and bonsai.
Despite being a crowded tourist spot at times, affording a little time to get lost and wander can lead to the quieter and less beaten path. Be sure to stumble into a home-style restaurant, to sample the real underground flavors of the city.
A match made in heaven, watermelon chicken – xigua ji – is a combo of braised whole chicken, first marinated in sweat watermelon juice, that’s then cooked into savory soup. And why not try Beggar’s Chicken again but this time Suzhou style, meaning the bird is wrapped in lotus leaves for added flavor.
But remember, not until after Golden week for all of this… 😉
Contributed by FIELDS (www.fieldschina.com), a popular online grocery store for safe, quality food in China. FIELDS stocks fresh and organic fruit and veg, imported and domestic meat and seafood, plus essential pantry items from home. Order before 5 pm in Shanghai and benefit from same day delivery with delivery free for orders over RMB 200. A new customer? Great – you’ll receive a free gift with your first order!