Ningbo surprises with an interesting mix of modern city life, traditional towns and a chance to get back to nature in vast parks or at Dongqian Lake.
1. Old Bund
Ningbo’s dominant role as one of China’s oldest international trade centers is represented by the city’s “Old Bund.” It was first established in 1844 after the First Opium War (1840-42) and preceded by two decades the more famous Shanghai Bund.
The Old Bund is now a bustling area of pubs and other entertainment.
It is located at the convergence of three waterways in Ningbo, which once served as a major port area for the city. Foreign powers took over the area and transformed it into a foreign concession, with buildings constructed in the Western style to accommodate overseas residents. One of the most charismatic structures still remaining is a French Catholic church built in 1872.
The Old Bund underscores the emergence of Western civilization in China. It is also the only place in Zhejiang Province that still reflects traditional port culture.
Ningbo has long been a city of commerce. Some 31 of the 54 traditional buildings in the city’s commercial zone have close connections with local business clans. From here, Chinese merchant ships plied the seven seas.
After its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, the Old Bund fell into disrepair. In 2005, after intensive rehabilitation, the 80,000-square-meter area became a popular entertainment zone, with hotels, shopping and a sparkling nightlife.
Tianyige Library, the largest private library in China, got its name from “I Ching,” or the “Book of Changes.” According to this classic book of yin and yang, which may date back to the second millennium BC, a combination of “tian” (sky) and “yi” (one) gives birth to water.
This magical name has protected the library and its books from fire for more than 400 years.
Before the trip, I’d heard a lot about Tianyige, such as it’s the oldest private library in China and has more than 300,000 historical books.
However, the building itself was quite different from what I’d imagined — a modest two-story wooden structure.
From its appearance, it could be taken for an ordinary residence of a big family.
The library pavilion was built in 1561 as a private study for Fan Qin, who served as secretary of defense during Emperor Jiajing’s reign in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was not uncommon for ancient Chinese scholars to possess private libraries. Books were a sign of wealth and cultural status, and Fan was an avid collector.
The Fan family adopted a discipline that no one in the family was allowed to claim any of the books as personal property, and books were prohibited from being taken out of the pavilion. The collection today is the most extensive accumulation of information on the education, economic development, literary and revolutionary history of Ningbo.
Tianyige Museum, which includes the library, a living area and the garden of the Fan family, covers over 31,000 square meters. Some of the rooms have been transformed into exhibition halls, where ancient Chinese manuscripts are available for public viewing. The garden itself is worth a visit. Its traditional style provides tranquil solace for all who walk there.
The modern museum is now home to around 300,000 volumes — and rising. With high-tech temperature and humidity control equipment and huge modern shelves, these historic books are finally safe.
One third of the books are already digitalized so book lovers can flip through the yellowed pages on the museum’s website without touching the actual volume.
3. Drum Tower
The most striking feature of any drum tower in China, apart from style and size, is the bell tower at top, where timekeepers once wakened whole cities with punctual, strong gongs. The bell tower in Ningbo is no exception. The three-story structure atop the city gate also served as a wartime lookout post.
The bell tower forms part of the ancient city wall that once ringed Ningbo. Some historic heritage sites can still be seen around the area. Among the remnants are portions of the old grain storage house used in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Several historic stone tablets recount the life of centuries gone by.
The bell tower commands a stunning presence in what has become a bustling commercial area of Ningbo. It is within easy walking distance of shopping centers, restaurants and parklands. Modernization, however, has not come at the expense of cultural heritage. Many of the buildings embrace the traditional architecture of gray-tiled roofs and elaborate exterior wooden carvings.
Shopping and dining amenities are a mix of old and new. International coffee houses and Western restaurants sit alongside more traditional Chinese cuisine. Small wonder that this is a popular tourist area where people chat, relax and drink tea.
4. Ningbo Museum
Ningbo Museum represents the city’s ambitions to emphasize its modern cultural traditions.
Designed by Wang Shu, the first Chinese winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2012, the museum building itself would be worth seeing even if it was empty.
Its gray walls use old Chinese tiles to build a special ancient water town atmosphere, while the trapezoid shape of the building creates a modern feel.Taking a walk on the rooftop of the three-story museum is a relaxing experience before or after viewing the exhibits inside its walls.
Opened in 2008, the museum focuses on local seafaring history and traditional customs. The building houses more than 8,000 historic and cultural items, including bronzes, porcelains, jades, gold and silverware, carvings and paintings. The exhibitions span prehistoric to modern times.
Principal galleries in the museum feature artefacts, photographs and models depicting local history and folk customs. The history section on the second floor reflects the importance the sea played in Ningbo’s history and the cultural influences of seafaring commerce. Exhibitions trace the rise of the Eastern Zhejiang scholars, who contributed to the city’s development as a center of knowledge and art.
A section of the museum on local culture shows the city’s rise as a commercial center, with wax models and mock buildings used to depict a traditional old street in Ningbo. The cultural area also includes the origins of some of Ningbo’s most enduring cuisines. The third floor of the museum includes an exhibit displaying old bamboo artefacts donated by Qin Bingnian, son of the famous collector Qin Kangxiang.
5. Nantang Old Street
Nantang Old Street has been refurbished in traditional architecture, providing visitors a scenic stroll and is Ningbo’s most popular area for local snacks. Flanking the street is a canal crossed by old stone bridges. A narrow path runs along the canal for those who enjoy a peaceful walk.
It’s easy to lose yourself in the past here. Houses have been rehabilitated with traditional touches in a style unique to Ningbo.
Restaurants in the area serve traditional Ningbo cuisine. Some of them have been owned by the same families for generations. Snack stalls are everywhere. Yellow croaker, pot stickers and shrimp are also available. Interspersed with the old are modern cafes where visitors can rest their feet while watching the passing street scene.
A number of historic mansions and pavilions dot the area. And in the main square, cultural performances and exhibitions are held to reinforce the impression of a walk through history.
6. Hangzhou Bay Wetland Park
For camping out and bird-watching on one weekend, it’s hard to beat Hangzhou Bay Wetland Park, located in northwestern Ningbo. The 43.5-square-kilometer park, which is half water, is one of eight salt-alkali wetlands in Southeast Asia.
Visiting the park, I was first struck by the freshness of the air and the sparkling reflection of blue skies on water. Every year, thousands of birds stop here on the migration routes between Siberia and Australia. It’s a world-class spot for watching fowl play, rest and squabble, even if you don’t know all their breeds.
There are 10 themed zones in the park. The Zigzag Water Corridor was my favorite. It features a glass walkway extending in all directions above the water. This special design provides visitors a close-up view of underwater plants. Signboards give detailed descriptions of plants exhibited in corridor walls.
Black awning boats, the wooden, round-hulled vessels that have come to typify Chinese water towns, ply the waters of the wetland park. They are a great way to get closer to nature. Birds almost come within reach.
Several specialty gardens in the park focus on different wildlife and plants. The wetland reserve also includes a campground with full facilities for overnight stays or daytime picnics.
7. Dongqian Lake
One of China’s most beautiful and serene lakes, Dongqian Lake in Ningbo is four times as large as the West Lake in neighboring Hangzhou but blessedly less famous — and less crowded with tourists.
Dongqian Lake “combines the verve of Taihu Lake and the charm of West Lake,” a perfect hybrid of masculinity and femininity, according to Guo Moruo (1892-1978), a renowned scholar and poet of contemporary China.
We took a long causeway that divides the lake, which is rimmed by willows and greenery — not spoiled by hotels and development. Around the lake are lush meadows, with rugged hills in the distance.
It seems like an emerald.
We crossed several stone arches before parking in the center of the causeway, which divides the lake and offers a spectacular view.
Beyond a thick curtain of willow, we spotted ospreys or fish hawks gliding over the glistening water and diving for fish — they are tethered on a fishing line — then returning to a fishing boat where a fisherman takes their catch. Nearby in the center of the lake is Xiayu (Rosy Clouds and Islands) Temple, where Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, is venerated. A huge stone statue of the deity rises from the water, seated on her lotus throne and wearing a benign smile.
The temple on the other side of the island consists of newly renovated Buddhist halls. The main attraction, however, is a towering stone boat and a deep underground cave.
The boat is built on a three-story-high altar, reached by a marble staircase on which dragons are embossed. The boat is itself three stories high and carries a single passenger on the deck, a monk staring ahead, his hands folded in namaste. The inscription on the sale reads: “Ci Hang Pu Du” (“A Mercy Ferry for All the Living to Land of the Pure”).
The cave itself is not remarkable, but the legend is touching. It is said that a filial son once escorted his blind mother, who was a pious Buddhist, to this cave for a pilgrimage to Goddess Guanyin — instead of going to Putuo Mountain — to keep his mother from a risky sea voyage.
Guanyin noted his devotion and appeared before the man and his mother to reward their piety. Thus the cave is called Putuo Dong Tian (Guanyin’s Sanctum). There are tens of thousands of Buddhist temples around China, but it’s rare to find one like Xiayu with its main entrance facing open water. Adding to the charm, dragon boats occasionally ply the waters.
We were lucky to see a dragon boat race with cheering rowers.
The scenery of Dongqian Lake is legendary, recorded 2,000 years ago.
It is said that Xi Shi, one of the famous Four Beauties of ancient China, was taken there by her husband Fan Li, the most renowned plutocrat of that age, for a romantic retreat after his long service in the Yue Kingdom of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).
8. Shipu Old Town
Shipu Old Town is a classic example of an ancient fishing village. Noted contemporary scholar Yu Qiuyu celebrated the site as a worthy snapshot of traditional Chinese maritime life. Much of its architecture, dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), has been preserved.
The architecture is indeed captivating. The buildings of Shipu Old Town feature the extended eaves and heavy wooden doors of the past. Even the homes of local residents bear the imprint of the past after careful renovation.
Life here hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Drying fish still hang on outdoor racks, flowers are planted in old conch shells and tempting seafood aromas waft from local kitchens. This is a community gloriously tied to the sea.
For visitors, the town provides a glimpse of the culture and customs that gave coastal life its uniqueness.
In 1933, the town was the backdrop of the classic Chinese movie “Song of the Fishermen.” The film, by Cai Chusheng, characterized Chinese cinema of the 1930s. The movie, when released, ran for a record 84 days.
Be sure to visit the town museum, which provides an insight into the hard, often risky life of seafaring fishermen. Exhibits show the small boats they used and the somewhat dilapidated houses where they lived. There’s also a specimen of a whale that was hunted there in 2004.
Famous stunt jumper Ko Shou-liang, known as “Asia’s Flying Man,” was a native of Shipu. In the 1950s, Ko and his father moved to Taiwan. Ko is famous for successfully jumping across the Yellow River in a sports car and over the Great Wall on a motorcycle. There is a special museum in the town celebrating his feats. Ko died of asthma in 2003.
Throughout the year Shipu hosts a variety of events related to marine culture and fishing. Visitors can camp on the beaches, go deep-sea fishing with the locals, participate in water sports and, of course, dine on exquisite seafood cuisine.
You can even catch your own fish and take them to most restaurants, which are happy to cook to order. Some restaurants will gladly buy any surplus catch, or you can take fish home in an ice chest.
9. Qiantong Ancient Town
There are many ancient towns south of the Yangtze River. Some are commercialized replicas, with neon lights illuminating historic pagodas. Some are authentic, or at least partially authentic, having been rebuilt several times in the span of hundreds of years.
Qiantong Ancient Town is an authentic experience. It originated in the 13th century and comprises more than 1,300 traditional-style houses, most of them built in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
The town was sited and laid out according to the ancient principles of fengshui, or geomancy, to take advantage of positive energy and the natural environment. The town is octagon-shaped — eight being an auspicious number in Chinese philosophy. A stream encircling the center of town provides water for household laundry and vegetable washing today as it did in the past.
Some of the residences are quite grand, with courtyards and cobblestone paths in elaborate patterns. Many weathered beams overhead still bear the intricate carvings of yesteryear.
10. Yuehu Park
If you’re pining for a respite from the urban treadmill, look no further than Yuehu Park. Its location near downtown Ningbo offers easy access for a quick and relaxing getaway. Built in AD 636, the park’s landscape is dotted with towers, terraces and pavilions lining the perimeter of Moon Lake. The park has a long history as a meeting place for scholars. It affords ample place to stroll, sit, picnic or just lose yourself in a bit of nature. Boats are available for hire to float around the lake or try your hand at a bit of fishing. Several shops offer snacks and drinks for visitors.
On any nice day, you’ll see older couples walking the paths together, young couples sneaking a cuddle, and children racing excitedly over the bridges and around boulders. Many people come to the park on their own to enjoy moments of tranquility.