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Great escapes: 3 brilliant weekend breaks from Shanghai

Need to flee the city? Here's where to relax and recharge around China this autumn

Photograph: Cat Nelson (Shaxi, Yunnan)
Ready to get out of town for a couple of days? An overseas holiday might be off the cards for the foreseeable, but there's no shortage of incredible (and totally different) destinations still within reach. Whether you're looking for an easy getaway or planning a last-minute Golden Week break, here's three places to add to your China travel list this autumn.
Shaxi, Yunnan
Photographs: Cat Nelson

Shaxi, Yunnan

This laidback centuries' old market town along the Ancient Tea Horse Road has all you need for a restorative weekend away

There’s something about Yunnan – and it’s not just that everyone and their mother seems to be travelling there right now. It’s been a haven for hippies and city folk looking to escape the rat race for decades and you can see why. The chilled-out province imparts instant relaxation. 

Set in a lush valley, Shaxi, a township in Jianchuan county halfway between Lijiang and Dali, is one of the last remaining old market towns along the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a trading route linking China to South Asia via Tibet. 

The township’s height was in the Ming and Qing dynasties before falling into disrepair during the latter half of the 20th century. In 2001, the market square in the main village of Sideng was put on the World Monument Fund’s Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites and restoration as part of the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project with the local government and the Swiss Development Cooperation began. 

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The restored town is without a doubt touristy – guesthouses, coffee shops and indistinguishable restaurants and trinket shops speckle the streets – but the restoration has largely been done artfully and, in comparison to the throbbing old towns of Lijiang and Dali, the streets remain relatively quiet. Shaxi isn’t jammed packed with sights to see, though for a long weekend, there’s enough to keep you busy but not overwhelmed, with plenty of time for a lazy afternoon or two. 

After wandering around Sideng's weekly Friday market that brings the Bai and Yi people from surrounding villages (it starts around 9am and finishes mid-afternoon), stop by coffee shop Corvus Corax for pour-overs from locally sourced Yunnan beans just off Sideng’s old market square. The square itself is lined on one side with a grand Bai minority-style theatre (currently closed to the public) and on the other with Xingjiaosi, a Ming dynasty Buddhist temple with an excellent exhibition on ritual plant use by the Bai people and a display detailing the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project.

The best way to get around the area is by bicycle, offered for free or for a small fee by most guesthouses, or by scooter (Xialazhe Guesthouse rents them out for 50RMB for the day). Putt out past corn and tobacco fields to Beilong village and wind through small streets until you reach the Shaxi branch of Librairie Avant-Garde, a series of unique bookstores founded first in Nanjing by Qian Xiaohua. Set in a restored cob-walled granary and tobacco curing tower, the gorgeous, light-filled bookshop and its café opened in May after three years of renovations. It’s a strange and beautiful find in such a rural area. Beyond the photo ops, the bookstore holds an exceptional collection of books about the local area, ethnic minorities and history. 

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Photograph: Librairie Avant-Garde

About 12km from Sideng village also sits nature reserve Shibaoshan, from where you can hike up to the 'hanging temple of Yunnan' Baoxiangsi from the 13th century and Shizhongshan Grottoes, caves filled with Buddhist carvings by the Bai people dating back to 800 AD. 

The food in Shaxi is simple, turning on fresh ingredients and a few staple dishes that will reappear at most meals. In the morning, stop by Longfeng Ruiying for ersi (饵丝), thinly sliced rice cakes special to the region that can be served in soup with pickled vegetables or stir-fried. Lunches and dinners are packed with mushrooms and locally cured meats, with a particularly good meal at Chujian Shaxi Private Kitchen.

Get there Return flights from Shanghai to Lijiang start from around 1,350RMB, then hire a taxi or Didi for around 400RMB or take a bus to Jinchuan followed by a minibus to Shaxi.

Chengdu, Sichuan
Photograph: courtesy The Temple House (Mi Xun Teahouse)

Chengdu, Sichuan

Travelling for food? From famous hole-in-the-wall 'fly restaurants' to fancy fine dining, deep dive into Sichuan cuisine in the provincial capital

Eye-watering levels of spice, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, roiling cauldrons of hotpot – eating in Chengdu has never been known for the faint of heart… or the weak of stomach. But while the provincial capital’s love of chillies and tingle-inducing prickly ash berries may define what many of us think of as Sichuan cuisine, Chengdu’s gastronomic culture and rich history run much deeper. Whether you’re making the pilgrimage west for the giant pandas or to discover the city’s blossoming arts and cultural scene, no matter what, make sure to go hungry.

From thick coils of tianshui mian, or ‘sweet-water’ noodles (try Dongzikou Zhang Lao Er Liangfen across from Wenshu Monastery) to chilli-flecked pots of chuan chuan, or vegetable and meat skewers cooked in spicy broth (try local chain Maojiao Houla), Chengdu isn’t short of addictive cheap eats and traditional street food. But for a glimpse into the forefront of the city’s contemporary gastronomic scene, head to The BridgeWith polished interiors by Neri and Hu, the modern Sichuanese restaurant – perched on the city’s historic Anshun Bridge over the Jinjiang River – draws on forgotten traditions while looking forward.

Photograph: courtesy The Bridge

Tucked in a modest but elegant house with under 20 seats for diners per night, Yu Zhi Lan is a deep dive into classic Sichuanese cuisine with a few creative twists by legendary Chengdu chef Lan Guijun. Lan’s elegant, subtle cooking – perhaps best illustrated by thin-as-silk duck yolk noodles cut by hand in a delicate broth – isn’t a Chengdu-only experience (a second location opened last year in Shanghai), but the humble charm of the original restaurant prevails.

In a similarly delicate and refined vein, Mi Xun Teahouse at boutique hotel The Temple House offers a never-ending menu of teas from across China alongside vegetarian cuisine inspired by fare once served at Daci Temple, the thousand-year-old Buddhist temple that’s now bustling shopping mall Taikoo Li Chengdu. A hotpot filled with fragrant black truffle and pu'er tea broth and accompanied by six speciality mushrooms, black tofu and handmade spinach noodles, stands in sharp relief to the oil-slicked, vermillion hotpots elsewhere in the city.

For a shock of the brash, unapologetic flavours you might expect from Sichuan, dip into perennially busy Ming Ting. The unassuming 20-year-old institution is one of the city’s most famous 'fly restaurants', so-called for their middling hygiene standards but excellent food. Tuck into huge platters of home-style dishes like the signature mapo tofu with pig brains, lotus leaf-wrapped pork belly or guaiwei pork ribs under a showering of pickled beans.

Take a break from the city with a day trip out to the Chengdu Sichuan Cuisine Museum in Pidu district. Located just over an hour outside of the city centre, the museum is set on 27,000sqm of land with neoclassical gardens, a replica of a restaurant alley in Qing Dynasty Chengdu, an old-style teahouse and an exhibition hall tracking the development of Sichuan cuisine through thousands of antique ceramics. 

Get there Return flights from Shanghai to Chengdu start from around 1200RMB.

Hangzhou, Zhejiang
Photographs: Cat Nelson

Hangzhou, Zhejiang

One high-speed train away, neighbouring Hangzhou is still the ultimate, unfussy Shanghai break

If you’ve lived in Shanghai for any length of time, you’ve likely already ticked Hangzhou off your travel hit list. But with an endless amount of rambling green spaces, great food and a burgeoning cocktail scene, it’s more than a one-hit-wonder destination.

West Lake is the crown jewel of Hangzhou. Even for repeat visitors, the six-and-a-half 6.5 square kilometre lake and its surrounds are a chilled-out place – try to skip weekend peak hours and national holidays – to spend a few lazy hours wandering the lakeshore paths, taking a boat out on the water and hanging by the lake’s edge at sunset with older locals. For your first visit, the popular Leifeng Pagoda gives a good, if not crowded, vantage point to take in the UNESCO World Heritage site’s landscape from on high.

Weekends can see the city teeming with tourists. Xixi National Wetland Park offers another, less overrun, green retreat. A short five kilometres away from West Lake, the sprawling preservation is scattered with ponds, lakes and rivers, covered 70 percent by water. The wetlands date back 1,800 years and offer a glimpse into the natural ecology of the region.

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Carve out some time for a leisurely meal during your trip. From everyday eats to high-end local cuisine, the city’s food is one of its main calling cards. Make the pilgrimage to the now-national chain Grandma’s Kitchen at its flagship near Xixi Wetlands for a low-stakes, but delicious refuel or grab a bowl of hand-pulled noodles topped with mushrooms at Zhizhu nestled in the foothills of West Lake. For destination dining, book a table at the Four Seasons Hangzhou’s excellent local restaurant Jin Sha where the kitchen turns out hongshao rou that melts away in your mouth and crispy chicken with skin that practically shatters. In the evening, the city’s cocktail scene is best sipped through a drink like the clarified milk Fancy Yogurt at the ambitious Commune by Mill.

Get there Return trains from Shanghai to Hangzhou start from around 60RMB.

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