The great Shanghai road trip
Every spring, the countryside around Shanghai undergoes a transformation. Pink plum blossoms and yellow rape fields spread across the country, reflecting the lengthening days of sunshine.
A six-hour drive out of the city leads to Wuyuan County in Jiangxi Province, one of the best places to enjoy the scene and the subject of many Chinese photography books.
The area is most accessible by car, which means one thing: time for a road trip.
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Covering 3,000 square kilometers, Wuyuan lies quietly between the frenzied tourist hotspots of Huangshan to the east and pottery capital Jingdezhen to the west.
The topography is surprisingly varied with mountains, caves, rivers and flat farmland dotted with old Hui villages.
If you've been traveling all day, catch a few typical country scenes before heading to Li Kang, a water town, for the night. This will put you at the heart of the area first and let you explore from there over the next few days.
From Li Kang, drive northwest into the Dazhang mountains in search of Wolong valley. Here the mountains are misty and cool, with thin, ghost-like waterfalls cutting a steep path through its rocks and lush forests.
Every now and then, a suspension bridge precariously links the vertical mountain passes.
The area can get touristy, so hike up past the bus stop taking the majority of tourists back down the mountain.
The best and quietest views can be found at the very top where the mist thickens and it feels eerily like the scenes of a Chinese fairytale.
Drive further into the mountains and the scenery gets prettier as you leave behind the populated flatlands.
Clear, narrow brooks cut into fields and valleys; villages have a rough, untamed authenticity. Head for the cave complex nestled in the Ling’an Forest Park.
Hanxu cave is the largest at 90 meters high, it features an underground river on which locals run boat rides. Lotus cave has larger stalagmite and stalactite formations that look like alien life forms.
It’s a nice place to stay the night too. New hostels have been built around the lake fed by the underwater river.
In the morning, wake up to misty mountains reflected in a lake as still as glass.
The next day, descend from the mountains to the farmlands at the heart of Wuyuan.
The Sixi Villages is a series of picturesque settlements linked by a patchwork of farms. The spring blossoms are plentiful and you can walk between the villages through the fields. The gray stone architecture is in the Hui style and supposedly dates back to the Southern Song dynasty. They’re generally well preserved, so you won't mind if the exact dates the buildings were erected might be a big exaggerated.
You can get a sense of the slow-paced village life here as farmers sit out in the sun with their children and chickens.
During peak tourist season, villagers sell souvenirs and snacks to visitors.
Drive a few kilometres west to the Yantian village for an al fresco lunch.
It’s a rather over-developed spot with a very new looking "ancient" tofu-making workshop and water wheel. It’s highly doubtful that the village is 1,600 years old as its placard claims, but it’s a great place to eat.
There are decent restaurants where you can sit outside next to the wide river, stone bridges and old trees while looking across at acres of farmland on the other side.
The food is cheap: RMB 30 a person buys a table full of dishes that tastes fresh from the farm, plus hearty servings of fried rice.
Near the westernmost corner of Wuyuan there is a lake populated by Mandarin ducks.
The colorful birds are a Chinese symbol of everlasting love as they mate for life. But they’re also highly sensitive, especially to Chinese tour groups with loudspeakers. So, although the lake is pretty in its own right, it’s only really worth visiting during off season as any sign of tour groups will drive the ducks into hiding.
There is a boat ride that will take you close to the shores of the lake’s many islands where the ducks nestle, but they will fly away as you get closer.
After a night at the many hotels in the area, drive east back toward the highway to Shanghai. Here the rivers get wider and deeper, jagged trees cut interesting shapes against the scenery, and nature seems generally larger and wilder.
Stop off at Wangkou Village, a Southern Song trading village built along the gentle bend of a wide, flowing river.
The village buildings are clustered around one narrow central street with 18 cross streets leading down to river ports. In the past, no roads reached the village and it was accessible only by river.
The Qing dynasty Yushi Ancestral Hall stands at one end of the village, and is worth a visit for its well-preserved, elaborate wood carvings.
Wind up you trip at the gentle slopes of the Jianglin hills to admire the countless rice terraces cut into the hillsides. They’re filled with rape flowers in the spring, and the odd water buffalo grazing all year round.
At the top of the hills there is an observation deck with a magnificent view of the layers of terraces spread below for miles into the horizon. Chinese photographers can be found here with their tripods, clicking away.
On the way back to Shanghai, you will pass through Jiangwan, a dirty and noisy town. But at least it’s good for picking up local snacks and souvenirs like spicy, pickled river fish.
You have to buy a ticket to access the most scenic spots in Wuyuan. It costs RMB 180 and covers all the locations mentioned here and more, and can be bought at any of the locations. Additional fees often apply for extras like boat rides.
Most natural spots are open in daylight from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some villages might try to charge you to enter, but try bargaining with them first.
You need to have a Chinese driving license to drive in China. Alternatively, you can hire a car with a driver.
One popular Shanghai company quoted RMB 550 a day basic fee for a four-seater Volkswagon Passat with a driver. The price includes fuel and insurance but not road tolls.
Bear in mind that if you go on a weekend trip, you will also need to pay for the driver’s accommodation and food which comes to around RMB 250 a night.
Wuyuan County is full of hostels and inexpensive hotels which at peak season cost around RMB 100 a night for a double room.