Verdant Ningbo: 72 Hours in China’s Hidden Green Jewel

Travel in its purest form is a practice of rejuvenation. Taken out of our usual setting, we break up our established routine and expose ourselves to new sights, sounds, and smells. This thrust into an unfamiliar scene ushers in ideas, emotions, and thoughts about the world—and about ourselves—we haven’t considered before. We return home with barely noticeable, yet significant changes. Over time, these small shifts in our thoughts amount to a large transformation.

The most rewarding trip we can take brings us to an unknown destination. Sure, there lies a great pleasure in discovering the wonder of the iconic Champs-Elysées in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome, but truly transformative journeys take us to places we knew nothing about before. Setting foot in a foreign land for the first time is an experience akin to taking your first bite of chocolate or having a first kiss. It opens us up to the pleasure of being alive, being human. It’s in our spirit to seek adventures, cross seas and oceans, explore foreign lands, and satisfy our curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon. Travel to far-off places is the modern-day way of heeding that ancient wayfarer’s call.

Visiting Ningbo in Eastern China’s coastal Zhejiang region is one such journey. A provincial city a few hours south of Shanghai, Ningbo is sometimes overlooked in favor of its more famous neighbor, but it shouldn’t be. A weekend trip from Shanghai to Ningbo is only a two-hour bullet train ride away. In Ningbo, I found trails of a 7,000 year old history, a lush countryside, rich Buddhist tradition, an abundance of leafy parks, and a vibrant modern city that nonetheless honors its roots.


Day 1: City Feel

The first day in any new place is about getting the initial look. I start my exploration of Ningbo at the Qing’an Guild Hall, a gathering spot built in the nineteenth century for the local sea merchants. Hosting an exquisitely detailed wooden opera stage and a shrine to Mazu, a historical figure turned deity believed to protect sailors and fishermen at sea, Qing’an Hall is a living museum dedicated to Ningbo’s extensive maritime history. I spend some time in the quiet, secluded alleyways that drown out the noise of the bustling city outside as the thick smoke clouds of a burning incense unhurriedly rise in the air.

Later, I move on to Moon Lake, a scenic park in downtown Ningbo that is a favorite with the local residents. Since at least the seventh century, adults and children alike have been taking a stroll along the park’s green alleys. I spot an old man practicing tai chi on the shaded bank of the lake. The serene flow of his deliberate, yet relaxed body movements mesmerizes me.

I stop for lunch at Grandma’s Home, an airy restaurant overlooking busy Tianyi Square, the town’s main shopping and dining area. An important port on the East China Sea, Ningbo is well-known in the country for its seafood. Here, I dig into heaping plates of local specialties: the steamed soft-shelled turtle in crystal sugar soup and the bean curd fried yellow croaker. A generous serving of glass noodles rounds out the lunch.

A stone throw’s away from Qing’an Hall lies the millennia-old Drum Tower, one of the few remaining structures in the ancient city wall surrounding Ningbo since the eighth century. The gong of its bell used to awaken the city and announce the start of fierce battles. Today, the only thing fierce near Drum Tower is the onslaught of stores and souvenirs nestled inside the traditional style buildings adorned with bright red lanterns. I stop by the small sun-lit stall with youtiao, a popular fried dough snack I’ve seen throughout China. A young woman hands me my second helping. As I devour the snack, I spot a lingering smile in the corner of her mouth. I smile back.

The first day in the city ends at the sunset-hued Ningbo Museum. The trapezoid-shaped building with traditional gray brick wall tiles is a feat of modern architectural prowess built with consideration for local roots. The setting sun paints whimsical hues on the museum’s walls. A delicate dance between old and new seems to have found a home in Ningbo.



Day 2: Temple Tranquility

Travel to China would be incomplete without an immersion in the strong local Buddhist tradition. An early morning sun rises over the green countryside hills surrounding Ningbo as I head to the TianTong Temple to get a glimpse into this thousand-years old practice.

Nestled atop Taibai Mountain about an hour away from the city, TianTong Temple is considered to be the birthplace of the Japanese Soto branch of Buddhism. I am greeted by the master monk, a man younger than me with a quiet, serene look in his eyes. His presence has such a calming effect that I want to stay by his side. Instead, he gently motions me to proceed and into the temple I go, past studious ochre-robed monks and visiting pilgrims.

As if covered under an invisible shield, the temple grounds stay quiet save for the chirping birds, jingling bells, and barely audible chanting. Behind the wall of thick smoke of a myriad burning incenses, I see a grand opening into one of the temple halls. Inside, a thousand Buddhas extend their gaze on the wandering souls who’ve come here to receive advice, make amends, and pray for better life for themselves and loved ones.

For those wanting an extra helping of guidance, a palm-reading service awaits outside temple grounds. Donning a suit and a pair of glasses that hang on the bridge of his nose, a man with deep wrinkles and curious eyes declares the good turn in my fortune for less than fifty renminbi—I’ll take it.

Later in the day I make my way to the Tianyi Pavilion, a welcomed green refuge in the middle of the rush hour traffic choked city. Tianyi is one of the oldest, private libraries in the world. Books have been revered here for ages. The intricate network of halls creates plenty of opportunity for visitors to cozy up with a read in its airy spaces. I stumble upon a well-groomed bonsai garden and visit a museum dedicated to Mahjong, Asia’s favorite game that, as it turns out, bears origin from Ningbo. Making a wrong turn somewhere near the Ming Dynasty library, I find myself in a tall bamboo forest, where lean trunks rise up as far as the eye can see. The clicking and screeching in the wind is the only sound in the otherwise quiet garden. I spend a minute—or maybe an hour—amid the bamboos, before it is time to head back.

In the evening, I feel the type of energy that can only come from taking some time for myself to be still. I head to Nantang Street, a pedestrian alley in the center of Ningbo filled with food stalls, teahouses, and souvenir shops. Joyful pedestrians fill the street and I get swept up in their spirit. Holding a cotton candy in one hand and a bowl of dim sum in the other, I catch myself grinning a wide open smile. Turns out, being still (and having a hand full of food) does wonders for the soul.


Day 3: Soul Quest

I start my last day in Ningbo with a trip that will later prove to be unforgettable. Having no expectations for this uncharted location, I am filled with awe when our bus reaches a secluded mountain, Xuedou. A sprawling temple rests on several luxuriant hills that hide in their loins a cascade of a milky waterfall. A magnificent temple gate guards the entrance. Atop the mountain, a Maitreya Buddha gazes upon mortals. I take a deep breath of the fresh, crisp air and enter the 1,700-year old Xuedou temple.

The view of the dramatic gold Buddha statue alone would be enough to stun my imagination, but there is more. A bright sea of red floats in the distance. With robes fluttering in the wind, a large group of monks is en route for daily prayer inside the main temple hall. I follow the colors and step inside the grandiose pavilion. Rows of chanting monks extend from one pavilion wall to the other and the low, guttural voices create a sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It bounces off the ceiling, reverberates in my spine, and exits the hall heading toward the sky, bottomless in this high noon hour.

I nearly lose track of time—again—but the main Xuedou temple attraction, the Maitreya Bodhisattva Buddha, awaits. At nearly 57 meters, it is the biggest bronze statue in the world of its kind. Its perpetual smile and squinting eyes make it instantly recognizable as “the laughing Buddha,” the iconic symbol in China to which hundreds of thousands come each year in hope of fulfilling wishes. I climb four flights of steps to touch Buddha’s toes and make a wish of my own.

Serene waters of Dongqian Lake welcome me at dusk. I choose just the right spot to finish my journey at the Park Hyatt Ningbo Resort and Spa. Its free-standing villas surrounded by calm cloud-like waters and thickets of green bamboo bring on a sense of tranquility that I haven’t felt in a long while. As the sun sets behind the crimson-hued hills in the distance, I spot a flock of birds headed toward the horizon. They stretch into a single line preparing for a long voyage, but I know—to Ningbo they will return.


Where to Stay

Park Hyatt Ningbo Resort and Spa
Where: Dong Qian Lake
Why: Inspired by Chinese water villages, the 225-room hotel with free-standing villas sits on Dong Qian Lake and is the epitome of serene relaxation away from the city bustle.
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Shangri-la Ningbo
Where: Ningbo Shi
Why: Modern amenities, convenient base to explore the city, and impressive city views from the Horizon Club lounge make this the preferred choice for travelers to Ningbo.
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Where to Eat & Drink

Grandma’s Home
Where: Tianyi Square
Why: The airy restaurant overlooking Tianyi Square serves local seafood specialties such as the bean curd fried yellow croaker.
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Nantang Old Street vendors
Where: Ningbo Shi
Why: The pedestrian street near the Ningbo city center hosts souvenir shops, teahouses, and food stalls serving traditional foods such as fried octopus on a stick and pearl balls, glutinous steamed snacks made from rice flour and red bean paste.
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Gang Ya Gou (Jar, duck and dog) 
Where: Tianyi Square
Why: This Ningbo icon is famous for the traditional glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste.
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What to Do & See

Drum Tower
Where: Haishu District
Why: Visit one of the few remaining 8th century structures of the ancient city wall that is home to a variety of souvenir shops and restaurants today.
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Ningbo Museum
Where: Yinzhou Districy
Why: The trapezoid-shaped building with traditional gray brick wall tiles hosts exhibitions on Ningbo history that goes back 5,000 years.
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Tian Yi Ge Pavillion
Where: Haishu District
Why: Come for the opportunity to see one of the oldest libraries in the world. Stay for the intricate network of halls and cozy up with a read in its airy green spaces.
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Xuedou Temple
Where: Fenghua, Xikou
Why: Nestled near the green Xuedou mountain, the 1,700-year old temple is home to a 57 meter Maitreya Buddha, the largest in the world.
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