China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know
where to look. >>>
For a successful coastal Chinese city with the country's second largest port, Ningbo doesn't receive the attention from tourists that nearby Shanghai and Hangzhou garner. The city doesn't even get an entry in the 2011 edition of Lonely Planet (though founder Tony Wheeler liked it Putuoshan Island.
Close to a number of other great China travel destinations, Ningbo is a good place to head to as part of a tour of eastern China. It's no Beijing, but Ningbo is green and low key, despite its rapid development. The city itself is "doable" in a short time; many of the places to see in Ningbo are located close to Sanjiangkou (Sānjiāngkǒu, 三江口), where Ningbo's three rivers meet. Starting out from Gulou, the Drum Tower, you'll find several other favorite Ningbo attractions are within walking distance. Just outside is the 8th century Xiantong Pagoda (Xiántōng Tǎ, 咸通塔) sitting inconspicuously beside the road. Head West down the street to where the Fan Residence Antique Market sits just past Moon Lake, itself the location of the Ningbo Mosque and Tianyi Pavilion, the oldest library in China.
Despite its relatively unknown status among Western tourists, Ningbo is a major hub for trade, with plenty of foreigners working, temporarily or long term, in the city, which has helped to create a relatively healthy Western bar and dining scene, now mainly centered in the Old Bund.
Eastern history, Western history
The area around Ningbo was first settled by the Neolithic Hemudu culture, who cultivated rice and built settlements of stilt homes some 7,000 years ago. Much later, in the Tang Dynasty, Ningbo, then known as Mingzhou, became a major maritime trading hub between China and other Eastern countries as part of the Maritime Silk Road. The "road" wasn't without bumps, though. During the Ming Dynasty, restrictions were placed on maritime trade due to problems with piracy and the Japanese were expelled from the city after fighting broke out between two rival groups claiming to be the Japanese Consulate.
Western nations also made waves in Ningbo. The Portuguese were the first to set up in a big way in the 16th century, with a settlement that was home to thousands of citizens. In response to their indiscretions (like kidnapping and stealing from villages around Ningbo), the Zhejiang governor had the Portuguese forcefully expelled, resulting in many casualties. Europeans wouldn't get another foothold, outside of an unsuccessful factory built by the British on nearby Zhoushan Island, until the Opium War, when the British occupied Zhoushan and took the coastal settlement Zhenhai (now part of Ningbo municipality) before taking Ningbo three days later. The city was then opened up under the Treaty of Nanjing as one of the treaty ports available to European trade and settlement.
Europeans settled in what is today known as Old Bund, or Lao Waitan, on the northern side of Sanjiangkou. Separate French, American and English settlements (as well as those of other European powers) were built, the remainders of which have become restaurants, bars or shops in the Old Bund, with the exception of Jiangbei Cathedral, still an active place of worship.
Though its foreign settlements were eclipsed by those in Shanghai, Ningbo remained an important center for trade and industry. However, while the rise of Shanghai saw the decline of Ningbo's foreign trade, bankers in Ningbo were to play an important role in the development of domestic banks, even in Shanghai.
Preserving the past with Chinese characteristics
After China's opening in 1978, Ningbo suffered from poorly maintained, narrow streets and inadequate public facilities like sewage, water and heating. With credit from the World Bank's International Development Association, the city was able Ningbo Antique Market. The areas around the Ningbo Drum Tower and Chenghuan Miao (Temple of the City God) became shopping and dining districts.
A walled-off cluster of old homes and a temple near Chenghuan Miao was a dilapidated mess when I arrived in Ningbo in 2008. By the time I left in 2010, it had become Moon Lake Flourishing Garden (Yuèhú Shèngyuán, 月湖盛园), a gentrified cluster of restaurants and shops not unlike Shanghai's Xintiandi, although less aimed at the foreign set. A similar area, visible from atop Tianfeng Pagoda, is now under construction with signs showing plans similar to Moon Lake Flourishing Garden. Moon Lake itself is similarly under construction as Ningbo looks to increase its development.
Excuse the dust
Like the rest of China, Ningbo is growing rapidly. With the opening of the Hangzhou Bay Bridge in 2009, Ningbo became more directly linked with Shanghai and at around the same time underwent new waves of development. Even after its build-up in the 1990s, growth continues today.
Construction on Ningbo's two-line subway system, the first line of which is planned to open in 2014, began in 2009 and still tears Ningbo's main commercial street Zhongshan Lu (Zhōngshān Lù, 中山路) in half. Eventually, the Ningbo Metro will expand to a six-line metro system. Like the Shanghai Metro, the Ningbo Metro will no doubt increase Ningbo's growth out to the farthest reaches of its branches. Already, a Raffles City Ningbo is being built as a future metro station and part of the effort to develop Jiangbei district in the north.
What to do in Ningbo
• Explore Moon Lake: Although parts of Moon Lake are under construction as I write this article, a day or more could easily be spent exploring the gardens, taking a boat ride and exploring the refurbished old buildings, including the Ningbo Tea Culture Museum (Níngbō Chá Wénhuà Bówùguǎn, 宁波茶文化博物馆), Tianyi Pavilion (Tianyi Ge) and the Ningbo Mosque (Ningbo Masjid). Try dining in Ningbo-style at the Shipu Restaurant (Xīn Shípú Dàjiǔdiàn, 新石蒲大酒店) or one of many smaller restaurants near the lake.
• Drink at the Old Bund: An older "Bund" than the one in Shanghai, and much cheaper. Don't expect the glamor of the Shanghai Bund, though. Easy's, the Office Bar, La Cargo and Shamrock Irish Pub are some of the more popular foreign bars in town.
• Dig into Ningbo's history: Ningbo sports numerous important historic sights, even though they may not have the prestige of the Forbidden City or Terracotta Warriors. Get some perspective from the Ningbo Museum, which has great exhibits on the city's history. Follow that with a visit to one of Asia's oldest libraries, Tianyi Pavilion. If you have time for a longer trip, check out how far back the areas history goes with a visit to the Hemudu Site Museum.
• Look out from Tianfeng Pagoda: The historic sixteen-story pagoda looks out over Ningbo's Haishu district just next to the market at Chenghuan Miao. Plus the entry fee is a pittance at RMB 5.
• See Ningbo's spiritual sites: There are several Buddhist temples near Ningbo, but for one a little closer, hit Seven Pagoda Temple in eastern Jiangdong District or Baoguo Temple in northern Jiangbei District. Ningbo also has several other worship centers, including the historic Jiangbei Cathedral, and the Ningbo Mosque, built in 1699 (though the facade has been rebuilt since). Outside of the city, Tiantong Temple, King Asoke Temple and Xuedou Temple on Xuedou Shan are just a bus ride away.
• Ride to Dongtian Lake: Located outside of Ningbo, the lake is a few hours ride by bike. While it's not necessary to take a bike (buses and taxis head that way)—it's a fun ride, weather permitting.
Where to go from Ningbo
Ningbo makes for a good destination as part of a trip around eastern China. Here are a few easily accessible destinations nearby:
• Hangzhou: Known for beautiful West Lake, Hangzhou has long been considered one of China's most beautiful destinations. Buses and trains bound for Hangzhou leave from Ningbo South Station (nán zhàn, 南站).
• Shanghai: Since the opening of the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, daily buses from Shanghai South Station and Ningbo South Station take around two-and-a-half to three hours for RMB 100.
• Shaoxing: A small water town that's gotten a boost from its textile industry, Shaoxing is also famous for its local alcohol and as the hometown of Lu Xun, one of China's most important modern writers.
• Xikou Town: The birthplace of Chiang Kai-shek, many of this small town's attractions are of interest if you want to learn more about the Generalissimo.
• Shipu Town: A famous fishing village in the area, Shipu Town offers a good glimpse into an older, less frenetic China.
• Zhoushan Islands (Zhōushān Dǎo, 舟山岛): In 2010, Ningbo was connected to the Zhoushan archipelago via a series of bridges. A direct bus heads from Ningbo's North Bus Station near the Old Bund to Dinghai (Dìnghǎi Qū, 定海区), the central district of the main island.
• Putuo Shan: One of the main reasons many people go to Ningbo is to hit this Buddhist holy spot.
Spent time in Ningbo? Tell us about it in the comments section below!