So you've got your trip to China all planned out: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing; the Bund and People's Square in Shanghai; the West Lake and Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou. Armed with your Yoyoor smart phone, you are ready to tackle all these must-see sites, and they will be very memorable. But for a truly enjoyable trip, don't forget to visit some less crowded and equally unique attractions. Below are 9 sites in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou that are relatively unknown must-sees.
1) Purple Bamboo Park (Zizhu Yuan)
One of Beijing's largest parks, Purple Bamboo Park is a great place to spend a morning in Beijing. Here you can find locals and tourists exercising, wandering, fishing and chatting among whispering willow trees, meandering streams and quaint ponds. The park is easy to get to, and visitors can spend a lot of time crisscrossing the streams and gardens.
Purple Bamboo Park was once home to the Temple of Longevity (Wanshou Temple), where Qing rulers could rest during their extravagant journey from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace. While there is not much remaining of the actual temple, the fengshui of the location is still there, and the temple site is a powerful spot with great views of the park.
Another bonus of going to Purple Bamboo Park is that you can take a tour boat from here along the Royal Canal all the way to the Summer Palace, just like the Qing Emperors. While the views along this boat ride are limited, the Summer Palace is quite a ways outside of the center of town, and going by boat is certainly more enjoyable than sitting in a taxi on the clogged ring roads. Plus, arriving just inside the gate of the Summer Palace beside the famous Jade Belt Bridge really does make you feel like an emperor, and makes for an ideal start to your Summer Palace tour.
2) Grand View Garden (Daguan Yuan)
The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China's most famous novels, if not the most famous novel. Even if you don't have time to read the entire thousand-plus page novel, it is worth reading at least a shortened version of it or even watching one of the movie versions. The novel provides an excellent vision into one of China's golden ages and is a great place to study Chinese culture. Since most of China’s population has read the novel, it also makes for a great conversation topic when you finally arrive in China.
Grand View Garden in Beijing was designed according to the Grand View Garden in this novel. If you did get a chance to read the book, you will enjoy being in a real-life Grand View Garden living the life of Bai Yu and Aunt Xue. And even if you do not have a chance to read the novel, this park is still a great place to visit. The park is a good place to visit before or after the Temple of Heaven, since there are not many other good attractions near the Temple of Heaven. It is also near Ox Street Mosque, which might be a good place to check out as well.
3) Haidian District (Haidian Qu)
I cheated here— Haidian is actually a huge district in Beijing, not an attraction. But besides the Summer Palace and sometimes Fragrant Hills park, many visitors to Beijing do not spend enough time in Haidian, one of Beijing's most culturally significant districts. Perhaps they are daunted by the immense size of the district (the Summer Palace and Fragrant Hills Park alone are bigger than most of downtown Beijing), but recent developments in public transport here make Haidian a great place to visit.
The sites scattered throughout the district are too numerous to list here. I suggest visiting Peking University and/or Tsinghua University, plus the hip Wudaokou area near Tsinghua. These two universities, the most prestigious and historically significant ones in China, are worth wandering around. Peking University's verdant campus is highlighted by Ming-style carved beams and painted rafters, and the cafes and Korean restaurants just outside the campus are a good jumping off point for places like the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan).
South of the universities, near the Beijing Zoo, is the Five Pagoda Temple. This temple was built in a Buddhist Indian style, with unique Chinese innovations. There are few temples like it in China, especially in northern China. The carvings in this temple, especially the thousand “Sagacious Buddhas” at the foundation, are works of art. The floral design bas-reliefs and Sanskrit letter carvings add to the uniqueness. In fact, there are so many carvings and sculpture to check out that the open-air Beijing Art Museum of Stone Carving is housed within a wing of the temple.
If the weather is clear, be sure to go to the top of the CCTV Tower at the end of your Haidian tour for a panoramic view of western Beijing. See if you can spot all the places you visited that day from the observation deck.
1) Jinmao Tower (Jinmao Dasha)
Everyone knows about the Oriental Pearl Tower, which is an engineering and architectural marvel. The problem with the Oriental Tower is that it's not that high, it's rather expensive to buy tickets to the top, and there is usually a long line just to get tickets.
Rather than waiting on line for overpriced tickets, why not go one block southeast to the Jinmao Tower? The Jinmao Tower was the tallest building in China until 2008, when Shanghai’s World Trade Center was completed. Moreover, the Jinmao Tower is an architectural feat in itself, with its amazing “scales” on the outside of the building, plus the massive Hyatt Hotel taking up most of the upper stories. From the observation deck of this building, visitors can look straight down the middle of the tower all the way to the lobby of the Hyatt 52 stories below. And with such a height, visitors also get a spectacular view of Shanghai, including the Bund and of course the Oriental Pearl Tower (if you go to the Oriental Pearl Tower instead of Jinmao, then you won't get to have a view of it!).
To get to the top of the tower, one can take an elevator from the basement of the tower all the way to the observation deck at the top. Another great idea, especially on a clear night when Shanghai is all lit up, is to go to the Cloud 9 Bar in the Hyatt. The Cloud Nine Bar is just a couple of stories below the actual observation deck, and you can enjoy some drinks and hors d’oeuvres while suspended above the city (note: Cloud 9 has a minimum order per person, a 15% service charge, and 5-star hotel prices).
2) Fuxing Park (Fuxing Gongyuan)
I consider Fuxing Park to be the Central Park of Shanghai— an oasis among the towering skyscrapers of the big city. Actually, Fuxing Park is more of an oasis among the old European villas of the French Concession, which makes the journey to this park half the fun. Because it was part of the former French Concession, the park is designed in Parisian style: wide pathways and flower beds. The rose gardens in the late spring are especially attractive.
Fuxing Park is a great place to see people flying kites, doing tai chi, taking a romantic stroll, fishing in the ponds, and even practicing ballroom dancing. After leaving the park, be sure to meander through the northern parts of the former French Concession for sites such as Sun Yat-sen's Former Residence and Zhou Enlai's former residence among the old villas, before finally ending in the Huaihai Road area for cafes and relaxation. Mid-afternoon is the best time for this Fuxing Park tour, but if you are more interested in the park than its surroundings, I suggest getting there in the early morning.
3) Ohel Rachel Synagogue (Youtai Jiaotang)
The Jewish presence was huge in Shanghai during the roaring 1920s; in fact, many of Shanghai's most important tycoons were Jewish. During the Second World War, another wave of Jews came to Shanghai to escape persecution in the West. By the end of WWII, Shanghai alone was home to about 25,000 Jews. In fact, it is said that Chinese tourists in Israel today will be treated with the utmost respect by many of the locals because of the hospitality the Chinese showed to their relatives during WWII.
Shanghai is full of hidden gems that reveal the city's colorful Jewish history, and even if you are not interested in the Jewish history here, exploring these sites will still give you an interesting perspective of Shanghai. The Ohel Rachel Synagogue is one of these sites, an imposing building with huge marble pillars and a cavernous interior. Besides the synagogue, there are plenty of other attractions to check out, all of which underscore the Jews crucial impact on Shanghai's history and development. For example, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was once the Russian Jewish Club; Pacific Gardens and Toeg House on Shaanxi North Road are also worth a look.
1) Guo's Villa (Guozhuang)
There are so many sites to visit around Hangzhou's West Lake, it is hard to decide which ones are the best. Guo’s Villa is my favorite spot on the West Lake. The 10rmb (US$1.40) admission fee makes many visitors just skip over it in order to head out to the other free attractions on the lake, which keeps crowds down. The building itself is expansive and beautiful, with coy ponds, ducks, granite grottoes, and colorful plants.
Why go to a teahouse in China when you can have tea at Guo's Villa instead? If you're lucky, you can even get one of the lakeside pavilions to yourself for the tea, or at least sit on the lakeside platform and look out over the entire lake, past Su Causeway and on to downtown Hangzhou. The view is incredible, the breeze is fresh and the location is quiet. Bring some snacks if you can.
2) Yunxi Bamboo Forest (Yunxi Zhujing)
Hidden at the southern end of Meijiawu, Yunxi bamboo forest is another oft-overlooked attraction in Hangzhou. It was voted by Hangzhou residents as the best-maintained park in Hangzhou in 2006. The paths are not steep at the beginning, but gradually incline along a gushing stream towards the daunting Lion Peak. There are so many bamboo trees that it appears as if the trees are moving and you are standing still as you walk through the forest. Besides the bamboo, the forest is also home to numerous huge rubber trees, some of which are centuries-old.
The bamboo forest can make an excellent post-lunch stroll after getting lunch at a teahouse in Meijiawu Tea Village. For the more adventurous, you can continue climbing up Lion Peak after the bamboo forest, and eventually follow the ridge at the top of Lion Peak to make your way across to Longjing and back to the West Lake area. Lion Peak is also home to Hangzhou's best Dragon Well Tea because of its altitude and location away from the pollution of downtown Hangzhou. Be warned: it’s a steep climb! A quiet temple at the top of Lion Peak, coupled with the exhaustion of the climb puts visitors at peace.
3) Pagoda Park Behind Six Harmonies Pagoda (Liuhe Ta)
Six Harmonies Pagoda is a must-see in Hangzhou. It is one of Hangzhou’s “Power Spots;” after climbing to the top and seeing the view across the Qiantang, you can imagine why they chose this spot to put such a protective structure. But, many visitors skip over the impressive Pagoda park behind the pagoda. After climbing Six Harmonies, be sure to explore the area on the hillside behind it. The park is home to over a hundred scale models of China’s most famous pagodas, including Five-Pagoda Temple mentioned above.
The scale models of the pagodas are done with precision, and some even have plants in front designed to look like the old cypress trees in front of the original pagodas. The park can give you some great photo opportunities. When I went with my 1-year-old nephew, we got some great pictures of him among the pagoda models; it looked like a scene from Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.
Hopefully you've got enough holes in your itinerary to schedule time for some of these places, or you can use them as backups if it becomes logistically impossible to get to some of the other attractions you want to see. Chinese cities are full of off-the-beaten-track locales such as the ones above, so get out and explore! Thanks to Yoyoor's rental phone and the phone's GPS navigation for helping me find these great attractions.