The perfect trip: China
Wang Yi is a volunteer at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where a scale model of Shanghai’s cityscape circa 2020 takes up the entire first floor. Though only in her teens, Wang has already seen the city change beyond recognition. ‘Many places I remember from when I was little look completely different now,’ she says. ‘Mostly the city is changing for the better, but sometimes I think it is moving too fast.’
Following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Shanghai became China’s wealthiest trading port, growing rich on the proceeds of silk, tea and opium, while attracting swathes of western merchants and investors. The legacy of the city’s golden age is still clear to see along the Bund, the city’s most celebrated boulevard, where the banks, office blocks and heritage hotels run the architectural gamut from austere Neo- Gothic to dreamy Art Deco. For Wang Yi, this mad mix of styles is symptomatic of Shanghai’s addiction to change. ‘Every new building must be bigger, higher and shinier than the one before,’ she says.
Outside, rush hour is in full swing. Scooters whine through tailbacks and drivers lean into car horns. Skyscrapers stack along the streets, blazing with incandescent colour. High above, the night sky glows like a filament, and the traffic stretches out like circuits on a motherboard.
Where to eat
M on the Bund serves upmarket European food with knockout views of the Pudong skyline. In the evening, head downstairs for cocktails at the glitzy M Glamour bar (dinner mains from £19, cocktails from £9).
Where to stay
With its cracked concrete walls and minimalist lines, the Waterhouse is the epitome of Shanghai style. Rooms vary in layout, but all feature espresso machines, iPod speaker docks and sleek glass-walled bathrooms. The rooftop bar has electric views across Pudong’s neon-drenched skyline (from £110).
Longsheng: Best for rice terraces
Rice isn’t just a staple in China – it is the stuff of life. Beyond the big cities, in the flatlands that cover much of the country’s interior, every inch of available earth is given over to its cultivation, and the landscape’s colours shift according to the rice season – acid green when the shoots are young, deep jade when the crop is mature, and tawny brown following the annual harvest. China accounts for more than 26% of the world’s total rice yield, an astonishing statistic given that the majority of the country’s crop is still sown, tended and harvested by hand.
High in the mountains of northern Guangxi stretches the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, a vast network stacked across the hillsides like the tiers of a wedding cake. Cultivated for more than eight centuries, the rice terraces cover 16 acres and range in altitude from 300m to 1,100m. Liao Guozhen can trace back his family’s rice-growing heritage here for at least 700 years. Now in his early seventies, he’s been working in the terraces near his home village of Pinyan since he was eight years old. ‘I’ve never known anything other than growing rice,’ he says, puffing on a crooked cigarette as he wades knee-deep into the waterlogged paddies. ‘If you put me in a big city, I’d be lost, but here I always know what to do.’ As he tends to the shoots, banks of fog roll up from the valley and a few peaks peep out above the cloud.
The terraces aren’t just beautiful, they’re a self-sustaining ecosystem. Springwater is trapped by the terraces, and then evaporates, forms clouds and falls again as rain higher up the mountain. The tiered structure also prevents erosion and provides a habitat for insects, birds and butterflies, which act as natural predators, reducing the need for pesticides.