Great Getaways from Shanghai: China’s Hidden Charms

Most visitors to China land in Shanghai or Beijing, both exciting cities full of history, culture and nearly endless things to see and do.

But if your itinerary allows for some extra time to step off the beaten path, this amazing country holds a wealth of hidden charms that will show you a side of China that you may not have suspected. Here are three amazing weekend trips that can be easily taken from the popular and busy city of Shanghai.

Hangzhou

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The traditional yet sophisticated city of Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province, and lies about 120 miles from Shanghai. Hangzhou is extremely affluent and draws 50 million visitors per year. The man-made Grand Canal that starts in Beijing ends here, the longest in the world with more than 1,000 miles. The Grand Canal was ordered by a 6th century Emperor and linked numerous separate natural canals, uniting far-flung provinces to create the beginnings of today’s China.

Picture1No trip to Hangzhou would be complete without a walk along the canals or around beautiful West Lake. This lake is ringed by weeping willows with branches dancing along the water’s edge and is often shrouded in mist, giving it the nickname Weeping Lady.

Enjoy a traditional meal at one of the many restaurants, followed by a stroll or bike ride around the lake; or take a boat out onto the water, where you can view temples and traditional Chinese architecture. Head back in time with a visit to the Emperor’s Palace and Scholars Garden.

This is also a great place to get silk and tea, both major exports from Hangzhou. The area is considered by many to produce the best green tea in the world; you can visit tea farms that still pick and process their tea leaves by hand, as they have for centuries.

Or experience an old-fashioned tea house such as the Taiji Teahouse, run by a seventh-generation proprietor, where you can witness an elaborate tea-pouring ritual called Taiji. The cups are lined up for the tea pourer, who arrives bearing his brass teapot with an extremely long spout which he circles around his head and balances across his shoulders to pour.

Wuzhen

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This beautiful 6,500-year-old water town – the last in China – is often called the “Venice of the East,” full of ancient bridges, heritage hotels, boutiques and restaurants all built around an amazing network of canals and rivers. Over the past thousand years, Wuzhen has not changed its name, water system or way of life, and the entire town is one of China’s most important cultural relics. It is literally a living museum for an ancient civilization’s history, food and traditions.

In this ancient, charming town full of centuries-old restored buildings, there is plenty to do, or nothing at all if your aim is to relax. The place is quiet and serene, yet also offers wine bars, pottery and glass workshops, theaters and an open-air film pavilion.

Picture2Take in the delightful town from the water on a traditional wood boat, and stay in one of the many luxurious hotels or guest accommodations in residents’ homes for a true taste of Chinese village life.

Wuzhen also retains many historical places such as the Zhaoming Academy and Library where the ancient prince once studied; pharmacies that demonstrate traditional medicines; silk workshops and the Golden Lotus foot binding museum.

Don’t miss the fascinating Sanbai Wine Workshop from the Qing dynasty, where the rice liquor baiju is made by hand over wood fires and aged in oak barrels, the way it has been done for hundreds of years.

Music, dance performances and a rich literary heritage abound, making this a delightful place for culture connoisseurs.

Yantai

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This region in Shandong Province on the Yellow Sea is unlike anywhere else in China. Here you can visit the fairyland Penglai Pavilion or the immense Nanshan Grand Buddha Statue; partake of amazing fresh seafood dishes; or tour the chateaus and vineyards of China’s burgeoning wine industry. Surprisingly, the country has begun an exciting love affair with wine, and vineyards are springing up as European investors have poured more than 150 million Euros into the effort.

seale_A-vineyard-in-YantaiThe Chinese are now the largest consumers of wine, and the are is the world’s 7th largest producer of grape wines. Yantai’s wine region is known as Nava Valley. There are several large vineyards open for visitors, with cellar tours and tasting rooms; some also offer accommodation, five-star dining, golf courses and spa services.

Check out Chateau Junding, clearly modeled after the French tradition and employing a combination of Old World methods – with French Oak aging barrels – and New World – with the stainless steel vats used to crush the grapes. In a gorgeous setting they produce four varieties of red wine and two of white, as well as brandy and their newest endeavor, champagne.

Nearby is Changyu Winery, the first Asian vineyard to make it onto the Top Ten Global Wineries list, in 2007. It was also the first winery in China, established in 1892 and winning gold medals by the 1915 World Expo for their red rosewine and reisling. Their Great Cellar building, the largest wine cellar in Asia, was completed in 1905 and makes for an interesting tour, not just for the winemaking, but the historic value as well. Some of the original barrels, over one hundred years old, are still used in Changyu’s production, which puts out a million and a half bottles of wine annually.

A great time to visit Yantai is in September for the International Wine Festival; but there are so many other things to enjoy in this coastal region as well, with its thousands of kilometers of sandy beaches ringed by cliffs and mountains. Confucious, who called Yantai home, said, “It’s a great pleasure to have friends from afar.” The warm and hospitable people of Yantai clearly take the great philosopher’s words to heart.

Should you add Shanghai to your RTW trip itinerary?

all photos by Shelley Seale and may not be used without permission

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Older comments on Great Getaways from Shanghai: China’s Hidden Charms

Bensonn Harris Wallace
28 April 2010

Hey Shelley,

Very curious as to how you visited the vineyards – got any more details you could share with us on that?

When I went to Yantai last year, all I could find was the Changyu wine culture museum. When I asked there about winery tours, they said there weren’t any.

You don’t happen to know whether there are any smaller wineries starting to do tasting at their cellar doors, in a way that would lend itself to minibuses full of drunken oenophiles going from winery to winery all day getting sloshed, do you (like they do in many other parts of the world). Or perhaps anyone who is running such a tour?

Benson

Shelley Seale
28 April 2010

Hi Benson,
I went with East Tours (http://east-tours.com), a great company specializing in cultural tours of China. Chateau Junding is definitely open to the public, and you could visit it. Once you are there, they can give you a tour and tasting. From what I saw and experienced, there were not a lot of small vineyards like in Napa Valley or anything. It was a few big ones, but there are more coming all the time.