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. For over 2,000 years, Ningbo 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 a sizeable Portuguese settlement briefly in the 1500s, before they were forced out for pirate raids on ships. And for long stretches of history, it was also the only Chinese port officially open to Korea and Japan, a gateway transmitting goods and cultural riches between the 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.
Maybe it’s because of its legacy as a centre of 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 Soto sect of Japanese Zen. The surrounding bamboo forest forms a popular hiking area.
The calm extends farther, most notably to the city’s most beautiful feature, Dongqian Lake. It’s a sprawling, notably clean body of water; residents say they drink straight from Dongqian when the winds are calm and the water is clear during spring and summer. The pristine lake is much more picturesque and pleasant than Hangzhou’s famous West Lake nowadays, simply because it doesn’t have the hordes of tourists. It is fringed with green hills, quaint fishing villages and modern cycling tracks. 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 that Ningbo was also the birthplace of Chinese landscape painting and poetry.
The stylish Park Hyatt Ningbo Resort and Spa sits right on the lakeshore. The resort’s lush, well-manicured grounds with simple but sumptuous free-standing villas and beautifully preserved historical 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, guests sip on fine loose-leaf teas and snack on freshly made Ningbo dumplings, famous throughout China. They are made on the spot with rice flour ground by mortar and a healthy dollop of lard, which gives them an eminently velvety texture. The hotel’s dining venues also serve soft, succulent prawns caught from the lake; foodies will be surprised by how much sweetness and unadulterated umami these freshwater critters pack in their little bodies.
Even more impressive is Red, a 700-year-old temple remade into the hotel bar complete with sleek lacquered interiors by Tokyo design firm Super Potato. Kunqu – the oldest existing form of Chinese opera and a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage – is performed on stage every Thursday and at the weekend, before the DJ comes on at midnight. The hotel, in some ways, represents both Ningbo’s past 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 some 1,300 years to the Tang. And then inside the museum is a treasure trove of knowledge on Ningbo history, with an interesting look at the city’s intimate links with Japan over the centuries.
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 bars and karaoke clubs – still a far cry from the hipster speakeasies and cosmopolitan glamour of Shanghai’s more famous Bund. And even Nantang Old Street, a touristy precinct celebrated for its traditional street architecture and famous snacks (stinky tofu, Ningbo glutinous rice dumplings and grilled seafood straight from the East China Sea among them), is seeing its buildings replaced with shinier, newer versions, yet still designed in the old style.
As the promise of increased development comes to Ningbo, and the city takes up an even more important strategic position within the Hangzhou Bay triangle, it also faces the challenge of remaining true to its long-held identity: as the home of Zen.