Mogan Shan: Anyone up for a top up?

Culture | by Mark Kitto
Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Updated: August 31st, 2012 | Comments
In the early 1900s, Mogan Shan became a heat retreat for Shanghai's saints and sinners. Now the party's started again. Every cosmopolitan society in a hot climate has its heat retreat. The Imperial British in India had Simla, in Kenya they had Mount Kenya itself. New Yorkers have the Hamptons. Canadians have Whistler (though whether they are escaping the heat or the rain is a moot point). And we all know what happens when temperatures rise. Heat retreats become summer playgrounds, with the emphasis more on playing than sitting in the shade. Shanghai cosmopolis, past and present, has Mogan Shan, a bamboo clad emerald hill just beyond Hangzhou. Hangzhou has it too, but Shanghai started it, so can claim it as its own. This is of course discounting Sheshan, a pimple with a church on it—good for another kind of retreat, not so in fashion in these godless times. Now, just as Shanghai is undergoing a renaissance, so is the city's summer playground. Mogan Shan is back. Well it never moved, but the city's moving to it once again. Along the Hu Hang Highway and then the brand new Ning Hang, too, to the clear skies, soft summer breezes, finely appointed villas and the odd karaoke hall that can be found nestling in the shade of the rustling bamboo, at the highest point between the Huangpu and Huang Shan. In the early 1900s, some foreigners from Shanghai stumbled up the 500-metre (1,640 ft) mountain and decided to make it their exclusive hideaway. In those days, you climbed the hillside in the comfort of a sedan chair borne by two hardy porters, up stone steps winding through the bamboo plantations. Missionaries, taipans, customs officials and their families built thick-walled villas, municipal baths—as swimming pools were once known—tennis courts, churches and public halls. The village became a microcosm of the Concessions, with its own governing committee who decided if you qualified for the exclusive enclave. Within a couple of decades the gangsters—who ran Shanghai as much as the foreigners did—muscled their way in with their Nationalist government cronies sharp on their heels. Chiang Kai-shek built himself a massive pad on the mountain. There was intrigue, scandal and even a famous murder, though sadly not one that Agatha Christie would bother to write about. It was purely a case of disgruntled and unpaid servants battering their heartless laowai employer to death. Mogan Shan is as steeped in history as it is in the cool mist that shrouds it in the early morning. At every turn in the maze of paths that crisscross the slopes you will find an old banker's mansion or the humble holiday home of the hoi polloi of a bygone era. Through the rusting wire that surround the old swimming pool, amongst the head high weeds that cover the old tennis courts, you can imagine young men in slacks and tennis shorts offering cigarettes from silver cases to girls in halter tops, that today we would call t-shirts, and sunhats hiding bob cuts. Scott Fitzgerald should have been there. Noel Coward probably was. Once. But it is not for its history or its ghosts that you should revisit Mogan Shan today. As you climb the steep switchbacks on the concrete road that did away with the sedan chairs, you can turn off the air con in the car and open the windows. Cool air floods in with the scent of the green leaves that shade the road. Below and behind you, watch the Zhejiang plain disappear under the light blanket of smog you have escaped. Musty leaves make a brown carpet under the bamboo. The only litter is the pile of glass shards from the headlights of a city driver who has never driven up or down a hill in his life. They are used to that up here. Long-deserted villas and mansions are fast being restored to something like their former glory. The workmanship might not be quite up to its former painstaking precision, and it seems a crying shame to throw out the beautiful old four-legged cast iron baths with history's grubby bathwater, but someone, somewhere, has cottoned on to the potential of the past. One pioneer is the Radisson hotel group. Their Hangzhou hotel has taken a long lease on two villas, one a former missionary retreat, the other—for those who like life a little wilder—the former hangout of Du Yuesheng, Shanghai's gangster king of the 1930s. Both houses have been completely overhauled to five-star standards. Ironically, it is the missionary who ended up with the sauna. Old and decrepit hotels—which a few years ago could have been the sets for The Shining 2—have also been spruced up in a hurry. You are not going to get Scott Fitzgerald standard service or cuisine from them, but then you do not have to be as rich as the Great Gatsby to rent a room. They can generally be bargained down to RMB 200 or maybe twice that on a summer weekend, for example at the Baiyun. In contrast, The Radisson will rent you a complete villa for a neat ten or eleven grand. Depends if you want the sauna. It is even possible, just, with not a little bargaining and bureaucratic ballet work, to rent a house for yourself. Standard rules apply. Rent is relatively good value for a house with a roof, four walls and a couple of floorboards. But restoration will set you back, and then you will have to give it all back at the end of your lease. Only serious heat-retreaters should apply. But if you take on the challenge, and see it through, be prepared to be flooded with more friends than the head of a visa section. And be warned, the Mogan Shan experience is as addictive today as Du Yuesheng's opium dens were nearly a century ago.
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