Exciting, exhilarating, intense, pungent – Shanghai is many things, but peaceful it is not. Those visiting the city who crave to crank down the ever-present car honks have few options beyond earplugs and small parks. Moganshan, about an hour’s drive from the city of Hangzhou, itself less than an hour by train from Shanghai, offers the ultimate sanctuary.
First populated in the late 1800s by missionaries looking for a shady break from the summer blaze of Shanghai (which reached record-breaking heat levels in summer 2013), the area now serves as a popular yet tranquil getaway for both tourists and city residents.
You can go high-end or budget. Expensive, luxurious yet eco-friendly places such as Naked Retreat offer detox treatments and massages. I was more interested in pummelling my calf muscles with hill walks than having my buttocks caressed by a pricey masseuse, so plumped for a £30-a-night room at the Forest Holiday House.
The hill-side house can sleep 20 people at any one time, and can be rented as a whole or by the room, so it can be pot luck as to who you’re sharing the space with. You could end up meeting your future spouse; you could end up with a gaggle of annoying children.
With leather sofas, dusty old DVDs and a worn-through pool table it’s basic but cosy, somewhere between a skiing chalet and a school trip. Attentive ayis (which translates to ‘aunt’, meaning a domestic worker who cleans as well as cooks) prepare delicious and vegetable-heavy local cuisine for £6 a meal and you can help yourself to tea and coffee, but be sure to bring a few snacks. At about 10pm on the first night, still hungry from walking, I started having visions of chocolate HobNobs and you wouldn’t want to go out in the dark searching for corner shops (mainly because the unlit experience is all a bit Blair Witch -and there aren’t any shops nearby at all).
The lodge is mainly used for recuperating from the charming traipses the local area provides. Their in-house maps look more like toddler crayon scribbles than helpful area logs, but used as casual nudges in the right direction they’re useful. I tried Trail Three first, which quickly leads to stunning bamboo-traversing walkways and views of epic hill drops. There is history here – the paths take you past a derelict German-style villa built in 1898. It’s a relic of the period during the early twentieth century when Shanghai’s foreign elite would retreat to the area.
More of these often dilapidated mansions are found closer to civilization via some asphalt roads, near what can be considered the closest thing Moganshan has to a central busy area: the Yin Shan Jie strip. These buildings, visible by looking upwards through tree gatherings on the way towards the strip, were taken over by the Communists in the 1930s.
Moganshan Lodge, the one large restaurant in the Yin Shan Jie area, offers cold beer and flaunts its monopoly a touch with mildly overpriced western standard menu items. The road is also the access point to an impressive viewing platform-cum-café perfect for once-in-a-lifetime Facebook profile pictures with backgrounds of vast, ducking and diving green hillside.
On day two another dimension of Moganshan was revealed: the rolling tea plant hills where workers casually pluck leaves in the sunshine and wave ‘Nǐ hǎo’ at passers by. Somewhere between Teletubby land and Bilbo Baggins’ hometown The Shire, they’re picture book perfect to the extent that it’s easy to forget your map and lose track of your way back to the lodge. As was the case with me, as I ended up going ‘off piste’ and having to walk through a mile-long road tunnel while following vague iPhone map directions back up the mountain.
It didn’t matter. If you’re going to get lost somewhere, Moganshan is the perfect place to do it.