At the first flush of dawn, the air rising up the slopes of 720m-high Mt Mogan carries a heady fragrance of bamboo and tea. The soft contours of the Tianmu Mountains extend towards the horizon in a misty sea of green and blue, while the occasional thwack of a bamboo cutter plying his tools reverberates around the surrounding slopes. Two hours from the glass and steel towers of Shanghai and there isn’t a single building in sight.
An oasis of cool and calm, the 43km2 Moganshan National Park offers welcome respite from Shanghai’s sweltering summer heat (although it boasts an all-year-round appeal). Also easily accessible from the more southerly city of Hangzhou, today the park is becoming an increasingly popular weekend destination for Chinese and international tourists alike.
With accommodation provided by a new generation of exclusive resorts and midrange hotels, the emphasis in Moganshan is firmly on relaxation and rediscovering nature, as well as enjoying the finer things in life. It’s not for nothing that the area is earning itself a reputation as the ‘Hamptons of China’. Those appreciating Moganshan’s charms for the first time may feel like discerning trendsetters. But they will soon discover that others have been here before.
“I always think the story of Moganshan, which is fascinating, reads a bit like the story of China over the past 150 years,” says local guide Chen Xi, eyes twinkling. Today it’s a cosmopolitan bunch of people looking to escape the frenetic pace of life.”
Turn the clock back a hundred years or so and Moganshan’s verdant hills were the summer destination of choice for Shanghai’s expats. Armed with butterfly nets and bell jars, botanists and birdwatchers arrived first, on the lookout for new species. Soon Shanghai based foreign missionaries and their families were throwing up summer villas across the landscape as they looked to take advantage of the area’s restorative climate.
By the 1930s, a large cluster of stone houses dotted Moganshan’s slopes, complete with private pools and tennis courts, as well as two churches, bookshops, bakeries, a hilltop cinema, a bank and even a castle.
“Even more than Shanghai today, Moganshan was a real melting pot,” says Chen Xi. “You had political heavy weights and European businessmen mixing with clergymen, all united by their appreciation of this green retreat.
Today, after decades of obscurity, Moganshan is making a name for itself once again. A good number of Moganshan villas have survived their period of neglect, with many now converted into a new generation of boutique hotels and lodges. Other resorts have been tastefully crafted from stone, bamboo and other green local materials.
The pièce de résistance of this accommodation is Le Passage Mohkan Shan, a French-style country hotel enclosed by corduroy-like tea plantations. Guests can walk through the beautifully manicured rose gardens or refresh themselves in the saltwater pool, while antique mosaic floor tiles, French furniture and pictures depicting historic scenes evoke the glamour and refinement of yesteryear.
Another popular example is naked Stables, part of the growing naked Retreats chain of family friendly China-based resorts that combine nature, sustainability and luxury. Opened in late 2011, naked Stables’ eco-credentials are second to none: solar heating, water recycling and composting of restaurant waste are all in-built processes here, while an organic farm and tea plantation supply guests with freshly picked produce.
“This was the first genuine eco-resort in Moganshan, and possibly even China,” says Marco Militzer, naked Stables’ general manager. “We have kept our environmental impact as low as possible. Nature is our headline attraction here.”
And Moganshan is indeed a great place to enjoy Chinese nature. Accessed via an intricate network of well-signposted trails, the verdant slopes are ideal for hiking and horse riding, with naked Stables complementing these pursuits with less strenuous activities such as swimming, calligraphy, yoga, pottery and kite flying.
Moganshan is also a cyclist’s paradise. While autumn and spring are probably the best seasons to ride, it’s possible to bike through the area pretty much all year round. For a challenge, hit the mountains and the steep dirt roads through the bamboo forests. Those after a more leisurely ride can keep to the flat, paved roads that meander around the region’s beautiful water reservoirs connecting villages, farms and temples.
The Shanghainese seem as keen on these offerings as Moganshan’s foreign guests.
“A growing number of Chinese people want a break from the stresses and strains of urban life,” says Marco. “They really appreciate the bucolic beauty of Moganshan. Some of our guests have never even seen a horse before.”
Rub of the Green
Up at dawn, bamboo cutter Li Keyuan makes his way through the whispering forest. Swaying bamboo plants shift endlessly in the soft breeze, creaking as the stems bend and rub. The early morning sun streams through the rustling canopy, throwing shadows across the leaf-strewn floor.
There’s nothing quite like being in a bamboo forest, but Li has seen it all before. Using a primitive device fashioned from an old bamboo stem, packing tape and a crescent-shaped blade, the Moganshan native prepares to cut the uppermost sections of mature plants.
“My family has cultivated bamboo here for over 60 years,” he explains. “If you look at the stems, you can see characters and numbers on some of them. The character shows who owns the bamboo; the number indicates the age.”
Together with tea, bamboo is Moganshan’s most important natural product. While certain species grow nearly a metre every day, this growth only happens in the spring. Moganshan bamboo is used to make everything from scaffolding, baskets and chopsticks to the stir fries and soups offered on the menus of the area’s resorts. Those who want to know more about this fascinating plant can check out the bamboo museum situated close to Moganshan, which boasts around 400 varieties under cultivation.
Movie buffs will also be interested to hear that Moganshan was the setting of a memorable scene from the 2000 box-office hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when stars Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi fly over swaying bamboo trees. Floating on air is a sensation many visitors now experience after spending a few days in this revitalised beauty spot.