Name the first cities that come to mind when you think of eastern China. Shanghai is probably first on your list. Nanjing might be up there, too. And perhaps Hangzhou and Suzhou. None of these, however, was the historical starting point of the Silk Road of the Sea.
That honour goes to Ningbo, (寧波) “Serene Tides” in Chinese. For over 2,000 years, Ningbo — known as Mingzhou since the Tang (618–907) — was a major entrepôt, the dominant port city on the East China Sea. Arab and Jewish merchants were based in the city as far back as the Song dynasty (960–1279). There was even a sizeable Portuguese settlement briefly in the 1500s, before they were forced out by the Ming for being unruly pirates. For long stretches of history, Ningbo was also the only Chinese port officially open to Korea and Japan, a gateway transmitting goods and cultural riches to the two East Asian countries.
Today, however, it’s frequently outshone by its neighbours. Granted, it doesn’t have the glitz of Shanghai, nor does it have a landmark like Hangzhou’s West Lake, forever immortalised in poetry. So what does it have?
For starters, it must be the calmest major city in eastern China. That may sound strange for a place with 7.6 million people, one that still boasts one of the busiest ports in the world and is an increasingly important part of the development triangle that spans Hangzhou Bay. But there’s still a certain peace that pervades Ningbo.
Perhaps it’s because of its legacy as a centre of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism during the Tang dynasty (618–907). The temples remain, dotting the surrounding mountains. One of the largest and oldest is Tiantong Temple, established in 300 AD and considered the cradle of the Sōtō (曹洞) sect of Japanese Zen. The surrounding bamboo forest forms a popular hiking area.
Come spring, all the locals hike up the mountains on pilgrimage to get the fresh, tender springs shoots of the regional bamboo, a seasonal delicacy around Eastern China.
The calm extends farther, most notably to the area’s most beautiful feature, Dongqian Lake (東錢湖). Zhejiang province’s largest freshwater lake is a sprawling, notably unpolluted body of water, with a surface area of 20 square kilometres. Residents say they drink straight from Dongqian when the winds are calm and the water is clear during spring and summer.
This pristine lake is much more picturesque and pleasant than Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, simply because it lacks hordes of tourists from all over China and the planet nowadays. Fringed with green hills, Dongqian (or just Qian Lake for the locals) features quaint fishing villages and modern cycling tracks in classical Chinese gardens. Walking paths are clad with weird rocks and weeping willows, calling to mind a classical Chinese ink wash painting. With this kind of scenery, it’s no wonder Ningbo was the birthplace of Chinese landscape painting and poetry.
Famous shrines like the 800-year-old Xiayu Chansi (霞嶼禪寺) “Misty Islet Zen Temple” dot the shores of the lake, so massive that it seems like a sea, surrounded by picturesque hills. This particular temple was undergoing construction when I visited. Surrounded on three sides by the impressive lake, it’s now linked with a causeway built by Shi Hao, a prime minister of the Southern Song Dynasty (12th century). His pious mother was an annual visitor to Putuo (Potalaka) Island, a major pilgrimage site dedicated to Guanyin, the ever-compassionate bodhisattva Avalokitésvara, just off the coast on Ningbo in the East China Sea. But when the journey became too arduous for the ageing matriarch who’s eyesight failed her in her advanced age, Shi Hao built this temple for her by Lake Dongqian.
The stylish Park Hyatt Ningbo Resort and Spa now sits right by the lakeshore as well. Its lush, well-manicured grounds, with simple but sumptuous free-standing villas and beautifully preserved heritage buildings are a balm for weekend travellers from Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou, or the well-heeled locals who use the premises as club members.
In the alfresco courtyard of the Tea House, formerly a 500-year-old ancestral hall of the vllagers who inhabited the area, hotel guests sip on fine loose-leaf green teas and snack on freshly made Ningbo dumplings. These sweet snacks are über-famous throughout China, a brand name product like Champagne or Parma ham. And the Ningbo dumplings here live up to their name, made right on the spot with glutinous rice flour slowly and smoothly ground by stone mortar. A healthy dollop of lard gives the dumplings an unctuous, velvety mouthfeel, eminently better than the industrial machine-made ones frozen and shipped across the country and overseas.
The hotel’s dining venue, Seafood House, serves the freshest catch from the East China Sea. But visitors should eat local and go lake to table. Soft, succulent freshwater prawns, fish and other shellfish caught from the unpolluted waters of Dongqian Lake are prepared according to the culinary traditions of Ningbo and other Jiangnan styles. Seafood aficionados used to the briny taste of the ocean will be surprised by how much sweetness and unadulterated umami Dongqian’s freshwater critters pack in their little bodies.
Even more impressive is Red, a 700-year-old temple remade into the stylish hotel bar complete with sleek lacquered interiors by Tokyo design firm Super Potato. Elegant Kunqu — the oldest existing form of Chinese opera and a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage — is performed on stage every Thursday and during weekends, before the DJ comes on at midnight. Park Hyatt Ningbo, in some ways, represents both the area’s past, present and future.
It’s a theme that emerges as you explore Ningbo — a city, like many in China, aware of its heritage while just starting to embrace the future. And no landmark embodies the old/new dichotomy quite like the spectacular Ningbo Museum. It was designed by Wang Shu, who became the first Chinese citizen to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2012. Look at it from a distance and the building appears unashamedly modern: an arresting, geometrically hypnotic design that nods to the region’s maritime history and natural valleys, caves and lakes all at the same time. But get closer, and Wang’s devotion to tradition becomes clearer in the detail.
The exterior is decorated with millions of tiles and bricks from old Ningbo houses and the ancient city walls, some of which date back almost 1,300 years to the Tang Dynasty. Inside the museum is a treasure trove of knowledge on Ningbo’s history, from its neolithic past to the ancient Kingdom of Wu (222–280), to the beginning of its contemporary urban culture from the late Qing to the Republican era (early 19th century). There’s also a detailed look at the port city’s intimate trade relationship with Japan throughout the centuries, although all the records on display are solely in Chinese with just a cursory English translation.
Across the city, some of Ningbo’s most significant historic areas are seeing plenty of development as well. The Old Bund, which pre-dates Shanghai’s waterfront concession, has seen its clutch of British and Dutch colonial buildings transformed into an odd collection of fun bars and karaoke clubs, though still a far cry from the hipster speakeasies and the sophisticated cosmopolitan glamour of Shanghai’s more famous Bund.
Even Nantang Old Street, a touristy precinct celebrated for its traditional street architecture and famous snacks is seeing its buildings replaced, cloaked with façades of Chinese roofs and doors in the old Jiangnan style. This is the place to go to for Ningbo or Jiangnan-style street food. Stinky tofu, Ningbo glutinous rice dumplings and grilled seafood like giant pen shell clams straight from the East China Sea among the selection. I particularly marvelled at these newfangled skewers of sweet, local freshwater shrimp, eaten whole with their soft shells (hey, extra calcium, extra umami) encased in creamy quail eggs — umami bombs of the highest calibre.
With the promise of increased development coming to this ancient urban area, Ningbo takes up an even more important strategic position within the Hangzhou Bay triangle. But while it may not overtake Shanghai as the premier port city of Eastern China, Ningbo embracse and remain true to its once long-held identity: as the home of Zen.
Cathay Dragon flies to Ningbo from Hong Kong 14 times a week.
An edited version was originally published at discovery.cathaypacific.com on October 24, 2017.