SINCE a high-speed bullet train between Ningbo and Shanghai began running last month, it has become easier to reach the city across Hangzhou Bay for a weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai.
Ningbo, one of the richest cities in south China's Zhejiang Province, with a population of 7.6 million, boasts beautiful landscaping, a flourishing culture and tasty food. We planned a three-day trip to the city, which easily can be cut to two if you don't want to take an extra day off. Seventy-two hours might not be enough to fully explore the city, but it's enough to give you a quick glance - and may even make you fall in love with the place.
Day 1: Downtown area
Take the two-hour bullet train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station to Ningbo East Railway Station. The trains leave almost every 30 minutes, starting at 6:20am.
Tired from the trip? Stretch your legs at Yuehu Lake Park. It's in downtown Ningbo, so take your time to check into a hotel first and take a taxi. Yuehu Lake is known as Ningbo's own "West Lake," where locals love to relax without leaving the city. Yuehu, literally "the moon lake," dates to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). It was a place where ancient scholars, poets and painters gathered. Today, the park includes 10 scenic spots, including islands, pavilions and bridges. The remains of the ancient Korean Embassy can be found on the east bank of Yuehu Lake, as Ningbo used to be a key port for trade between China and other countries and a starting point for the Silk Road on the Sea, the two most favored courses followed by ancient trade ships on the East China and South China seas. The embassy was built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). You can choose to visit the relic if you love history, or simply walk around the lake, looking at grandfathers doing tai chi, or rent a boat to enjoy the sunshine.
A famous local eatery called Shipu Restaurant has a branch just beside the park. It offers authentic Ningbo cuisine, including seafood such as salted crab, yellow croaker and clams. It is a good starting place for those inclined to explore Ningbo food.
A short walk from Yuehu Park will take you to Ningbo's most famous landmark: Tianyige Library. As the oldest private library in China, it has stood in the city center for more than 450 years, passing from generation to generation after it was built by Fan Qin, a vice minister of war in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The two-story wooden structure was the blueprint for royal libraries, including the one in the Forbidden City built in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The historic library's books have been moved to a nearby modern facility for better protection, but you can still have a look at the building itself, feeling the contrast between its ancient appearance and how surprisingly well it protected its books for centuries. If you are a fan of mahjong, there is a mahjong museum next to the library, explaining the history and development of the most popular board game in China.
Ready to get out of the downtown for awhile? Baoguo Temple in the north part of the city is a good choice for the first day's schedule. Take a taxi from Tianyige Library, a journey of about 25 minutes. The temple was originally built in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). The current grand hall was renovated in 1013. It is the largest wooden structure in China's Jiangnan region. You won't be able to find a single nail in the hall, which is 11.91 meters long by 13.35 meters wide, because it is put together with the traditional Chinese mortise-and-tenon technique, which reached one of its peaks of development here. Since the temple was renovated many times, it is like a live slide-show of Chinese architectural samples from the Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties and modern times. The green area around the temple is also a good place to catch some fresh air.
The best place to have dinner on your first day in the city is Tianyi Square, the largest such area downtown. The square combines entertainment, catering, shopping and other businesses.
You can choose from dozens of restaurants on the plaza, including traditional Chinese cuisine, hotpot and some Western-style restaurants. Gangyagou Restaurant is the best place to go for local snacks. The shop's logo features items that spell out the owner's name - a large crock (gang in Chinese), a duck (ya) and a dog (gou). Ningbo tangtuan, or sticky rice ball, xiaolongbao, or steamed damplings and niangao, or sticky rice cakes, are among the most popular dishes.
Stroll around Tianyi Square to discover some interesting boutiques, featuring Chinese dresses, souvenirs and handicrafts. (It's also the place to do some shopping if you have forgotten something. The square is home to many international brands.) Don't miss the musical fountain if you are here on a weekend or holiday night.
Day 2: Xikou town
The second day in Ningbo begins with a trip to Xikou, a town 37 kilometers from downtown and home to the late Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Go through the Wuling gate, one of the symbolic structures in Xikou town, and turn left. You can see the Wenchang Pavilion, former residence of Chiang and his wife, Soong May-ling. This two-story Western-style building covering area of 500 square meters was built in 1930. Standing at the foot of the Wushan Mountain and facing the Shanxi Creek, the house is in a tranquil and beautiful environment. It is said that Soong liked swimming, so a diving platform was designed especially for her at the Shanxi Creek for her summer vacations.
There is a stone tablet in the house that says yi xue xi xue (ò??a?′?a), which means "blood for blood," written by Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek and his first wife, Mao Fumei. Mao, who wed Chiang Kai-shek in an arranged marriage and was divorced when Chiang returned from Japan, was killed at the back lane to nearby Fenggao House in a Japanese aerial bombing on December 12, 1939. To show his bitter hatred for the enemy and his will to avenge his mother's death, Chiang Ching-kuo wrote those four words when he was 29 years old.
Walk back to the Wuling gate and stroll on Wuling Street, paved with bluestone. Along the street, you will first see Fenggao House, the birthplace of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. Covering an area of 4,800 square meters, the house is of typical traditional Chinese style with an antechamber, a chamber at back, two wings and four verandas. The middle chamber of the house is named Baoben Hall, and has the memorial tablets of four generations of Chiang's family back to his great-grandfather. The sculptures and paintings are must-sees in the house. On the beams and the pillars, there are paintings of stories from the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," a very popular Chinese historical novel depicting the fierce power struggle among warlords before and after the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The house hosted the wedding ceremonies of both Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.
Leaving the house, visit Yutai Salt Shop, where Chiang Kai-shek was born on October 31, 1887. The business, opened in 1871, was run by Chiang's grandfather and sold rice, alcohol and vegetable pancakes. After Chiang became famous, the shop was regarded as a place of fortune and good luck.
Admission to the former residence of Chiang Kai-shek is 120 yuan. It is open from 8am to 5pm.
It's time for lunch and you have plenty of choices. There are lots of snack stalls on Wuling Street. Three must-eats in Xikou Town are thousand-layered cake, grilled taro and juicy peaches. Renowned for more than 100 years, the thousand-layered cake is made of flour, sugar, sesame and peanuts and prepared in 12 steps. The cake, only two centimeters thick, has nearly 30 layers. The Xikou grilled taro - a starchy tuber - is famous for its large size, thin skin, delicate smell and smooth texture. It weighs from 1 kilogram to 2.5 kilograms and is rich in calcium and protein. Xikou is also known as the hometown of Chinese juicy peaches, which have a thin skin, sweetness and a pleasant fragrance, and are at their peak in summer. The town has an annual juicy peaches festival in August.
You also can try some of Chiang's favorite dishes, including taro stewed with chicken soup, pork braised with salted dried mustard cabbage, soup of yellow croaker and salted cabbage on an Eight-immortal Table, which was typical of a well-off rural family in eastern Zhejiang Province.
Revived from the rest and refreshment of good local food, go to Xuedou Mountain to see the 186-meter Xuedou Waterfall, also known as the Qianzhang Crag Waterfall, and other spectacular waterfalls and scenery nearby.
The 800-meter Xuedou ("milky white") Mountain, located northwest of Xikou town, is the highest peak of the Siming Mountain range. The mountain gets its name from the milky white water spilling from a spring. The spring is called Milky Spring.
Walking along the steep road, you can see Sanyin Pool in an area that encompasses a 1,600-meter-long series of waterfalls that can be divided into the upper, middle and the lower falls. The upper one is like a sky ladder with 216 stone steps and is enveloped by the mist of the waterfall. You may feel a chilling tingle from the water spray and the breathtaking location. There is a temple to the Dragon King, a deity in Chinese mythology commonly regarded as the divine ruler of the ocean, and to the three kings who bestow blessings of peace, fortune and scholarly honor. Along the road, you can see the middle and lower falls. There are two waterfalls at the lower pool that are called "Yuanyang Falls." Yuanyang means mandarin ducks in Chinese and is the symbol of an affectionate couple.
Get on a cable car to view the spectacular Qianzhang Crag waterfall. The water of Milky Spring flows through the Jinjing Pool and under the Guanshan Bridge to the waterfall at the crag.
The waterfall was famous as early as the Song Dynasty. Wang Anshi (1021-86), a renowned statesman, economist, writer and poet in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), wrote poems praising the Qianzhang Crag. Opposite the waterfall, there is a great location - Feixue Pavilion - to appreciate the magnificent scene. Also, see the giant Buddha of the Xuedou Temple, constructed during the Tang Dynasty. In the early years of the Jin Dynasty (AD 265-420), the temple was called Waterfall Temple, while in the Song Dynasty the name was changed to Xuedou Temple.
Up the hills to the northwest is the Miaogao Terrace, which is on the side of a deep valley, with lots of ancient pines on the terrace. It is well protected, facing three steep cliffs, and once served as the field headquarters of Chiang Kai-shek during the nation's Civil War (1927-49).
Xuedou Mountain Scenic Area opens every day from 8am to 5pm and charges a 130-yuan admission fee.
OK, enough culture, history and scenery for now - it's time for nightlife in downtown Ningbo. After a long trip back to town on the bus, have dinner and relax with the night view of the Old Bund, one of the must-see attractions of downtown Ningbo. Combining historical heritage with new urban development, it is a prime landmark, integrating catering, shopping, leisure, tourism and offices. You can relax and chat with your friends at some new bars like the romantic Love Harbor or the sports-oriented Clover Bar. Or go shopping for some delicate hand-made jewelry or furniture at local shops.
Day 3: Dongqian Lake & Jiangbei
The last day in Ningbo begins with an envigorating cycling tour around scenic Dongqian Lake. Covering an area of 20 square kilometers on the city's east side, it's three times the size of West Lake.
Taogong Islet on the lake's west bank is said to be where the legendary leader Fan Li (536-448 BC) lived a reclusive life with his lover Xishi, one of the four great beauties of ancient China. Fan is celebrated in Ningbo for his efforts during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and Warring States Period (476-221 BC) to promote trade and commerce, a harbinger of the city's prosperity and fame of Ningbo businessmen.
Little Putuo on the east bank is a popular Buddhist attraction built in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) by local leader Shi Hao. Shi's mother was a dedicated Buddhist who regularly visited the Buddha in Putuo Mountain, in today's Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province. To save his blind, aged mother the trouble, Shi built Little Putuo in his home town. The temple still attracts believers.
The adjacent park, which displays a series of stone carvings of the Southern Song Dynasty, is worth a visit. Discovered mostly in the tombs of the Shi family, the delicate and vivid art shows the skills of craftsmen and the aesthetics of the time.
A vast reed marshland stretching along the river bank in nearby Mashan Village is a habitat for egrets.
Further to the east is Fuquan Mountain, the highest spot in the Dongqian Lake area. Climbing atop the mountain and looking west provides a fantastic panoramic view of Dongqian Lake, especially during sunrise and sunset. It is also a favorite haunt for stargazers - it was picked as an astronomical observation spot by the Ningbo Amateur Astronomers Association.
Bike rental stalls are scattered around the lake, so you can get a bicycle and start the tour wherever you want.
Or you can set out from the tourist center (cost is 50 yuan per day) near the Dongqian Lake resort area and cycle around the lake.
Nothing beats a hearty meal after an active morning. Zou Ma Lou Restaurant is an ideal choice for its delicate design, tranquil ambience and being close to our next stop - Cicheng ancient town. The restaurant, next to Cihu Lake Park in the old town, is in the renovated former residence of a well-known local banker.
Built as a typical zoumalou - a traditional dwelling in southern China built with corridors facing a central outdoor space that are spacious enough for riding a horse. The residence is the best-protected architecture of its kind
Preserving many original details, the restaurant uses steel, wood and glass elements to divide different dining areas. A glass-ceiling pavilion winds through a garden thriving with bamboo, leading to the main dining area. Modern décor harmoniously blends with ancient construction, pleasing both eye and mind.
Zou Ma Lou serves traditional Ningbo cuisine with a modern twist, including fresh river food such as shrimp, crab, reeves shad and spiral shells as well as Cicheng specialty niangao (sticky rice cakes). Its homemade soybean sauce and a dessert of walnut stewed with distillers' grains are among the top picks. (117 Minquan Rd, Cicheng ancient town)
It's time to explore the prominent old town in Ningbo's Jiangbei District. First established in the Tang Dynasty, Cicheng has been a prosperous gateway along the Yangtze River for well over 1,000 years. It is the best preserved ancient town south of China's Yangtze River.
Cicheng's sturdy construction and its labyrinth of brick-paved streets easily recall the onetime national capital of Chang'an, inside present-day Xi'an, in Shaanxi Province, which was a capital during the Han and Tang dynasties. Cicheng, first established in the Tang Dynasty by county magistrate Fang Guan, grandson of then-chancellor Fang Xuanling (AD 579-648), is like a miniature Chang'an. Towns built with such rigorous planning were rare at that time since the style of most towns depended largely on terrain.
Since ancient times, the town has nurtured scholars, writers and politicians, leaving it dotted with residences of officials, ancestral halls, memorial archways and ancient academies. Such a large complex of that type of traditional architecture rarely is seen in southern China.
In 2009, Cicheng ancient architecture complex was awarded the UNESCO Asian-Pacific Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation.
Time slows down in Cicheng. Tranquil and solitary, the town transports tourists back to ancient times, with its street lined with varied styles of construction, the magnificent stairstep-peaked, fire-inhibiting outer walls of the rich juxtaposed with the motley walls built with discarded tiles by the poor.
The 75-yuan (US$12.2) ticket covers admission to the Confucius Temple, the ancient academy, a Taoist Temple and the historic county government office.