December 11, 2012

Travel Tuesday: Mogan Shan, China


photo credit: NY Times

Like many places in China, Mogan Shan is historically steeped in legend. As the story goes, when the swordsmith, Ganjiang, arrived in the mountains, he cast and forged two swords for the Emperor of Wu. One of the main tourist spots in the area is called Sword Pond, which is supposedly the spot where the swords were made. A little over a century ago, foreigners stumbled upon the cool, leafy breezes of Mogan Shan, where at the time rooms and houses were rented from locals. Not too long after, the news got out and a mixed batch of gentry, missionaries, foreign diplomats and businessmen pooled about 50 bucks and bought the mountain top for their own exclusive hideaway. They then set up shop in a European manner with villas, holiday homes, public halls, tennis courts, outdoor pools and churches. Many of these villas and houses have been turned into hotels and guesthouses which are operating today. Servants would often be seen shouldering their colonial masters on sedan-chairs up the mountain in the late afternoon. By 1910, three hundred Brits and Americans had summer homes on the hill. The village had its own governing committee who decided who qualified for the exclusive enclave. Even Shanghai's notorious 1930s underworld who were running the city just as much as the foreigners spent the summer here. Mogan Shan was once a favorite spot of Du Yuesheng, Shanghai's opium gangster king of the 1930s. The villa that once belonged to Du Yuesheng is a now a hotel with a pub. In 1949 with the rise of the communist party, the foreigners left the mountain and their villas were given to different work units from Hangzhou and Shanghai.

photo credit: google images
During the post-colonial era, the village was host to such big name visitors as former premier Zhou Enlai who met with Chiang Kai Shek in one of the villas to strategize on how the Communists and Kuomintang could work together against the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek built himself a massive house on the mountain top. Mao Zedong is believed to have once had a power-nap in a building which is now commemorated in the spartan Mao Museum. The main attraction of this museum is the bed where he allegedly slept. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Mogan Shan became a popular and exclusive retreat for the Shanghai elite. Today the bamboo clad slopes rising from Zhejiang plain are regaining their reputation as an escape from the noise of traffic and the pace of the shanghais lifestyle.

photo credit: davestravelcorner.com
Its renown for beautiful greenery is well-deserved. The mountains are covered in lush bamboo groves, dotted here and there with green tea plantations that have been producing some of China's finest teas for hundreds of years. It was in this area that a British botanist, Robert Fortune, commenced one of the greatest thefts in all history: stealing the secrets of tea from China and exporting them to India. (His discoveries also led the British to disdain green tea and prefer black. This is all spelled out in Sarah Rose's book For all the Tea in China - a fantastic read.) The mountains are shrouded with this history and intrigue – I hope to travel here one day and explore the wonders for myself.

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