Port city full of surprises

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am


Ningbo often surprises visitors and accidental tourists. The city is best known as one of China's major ports, but just a few minutes away from the docks are several interesting attractions, including China's oldest surviving family library - the Tianyi Pavilion - and a serene garden around Moon Lake.

Most of Ningbo's major historical attractions are in Huashi district, in the city's centre. The district is hemmed in on all sides by flowing water: the Yuyao River to the north, the Fenghua River to the south, and the Dou stream, which connects the two rivers and forms the far end of Huashi.

Moon Lake sits right in the middle of the district, setting the tone for a bustling city centre that remains linked to the gardens, pools and pavilions of its past. The lake is surrounded by classic Chinese rock gardens and flower arrangements where locals practise tai chi, dance to 20th-century marching music or play chess and drink tea. The northwest side has a smattering of souvenir shops and restaurants, serving authentic Ningbo cuisine.

A short walk from the lake highlights Ningbo's dynastic history. Northwest of the lake is Tianyi Pavilion, built during the early 16th century, which once housed thousands of ancient scrolls, books and treatises. The library has much on offer, though some of the handwritten Confucian originals have been lost to the ravages of time. An interesting sideshow to the relics that still remain is a mahjong museum, which traces the history of the game.

Ningbo's Drum Tower, also within walking distance of Moon Lake, stands at the head of a sprawling market that stretches out to the Fan Residence, the home of the clan who built the Tianyi Pavilion more than 500 years ago and the present epicentre of an antiques market.

Across the river from Ningbo's historical centre is the thriving Old Bund. It was created out of the Opium wars as an enclave for foreign traders, diplomats and hangers-on and has been restored into a strip of restaurants, bars and shops catering to China's modern tastes. Great bars on this street include Bass Clef's Bar, Shamrock Irish Pub and Easy's.

The Old Bund reaches north to the Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum and south to the Catholic Cathedral, right along the river. Back from the river, small side streets wind past 19th-century stone edifices that were once banks, trading missions and estates for wealthy colonialists. Today, cafes peek out of Victorian windows and clubs occupy rooms that were once a 'proper lady's' domain.

Ningbo is like a little Shanghai, with a lot of the business and its own bund (20 years older than Shanghai's), but Ningbo has much stronger ties to history, giving the city a more rounded character than its glitzy neighbour to the north.