Despite official recognition as a tourist attraction in 2012, the old stone path remains sparsely visited, and in parts largely untouched. That's what my hiking companion and I left Shanghai for, hiking in the footsteps of merchants, monks and mules, from Shangzao to Qingtan village, Shangqing Gudao, the Shangqing Ancient Trail.
Well, not quite from Shangzao. We could've paid homage to those Ming Dynasty travelers by starting in modern-day Shangzao, about an hour's drive from central Shaoxing, but it'd add six kilometers to our hike and they mostly look like this.
Instead we started in Meiyuan Village, about a kilometer from the trailhead. What's in Meiyuan? Nothing, except the sun was falling on the ricefields, turning them a flamboyant shade of gold.
We reached Suosiqiao on foot, a stretch of shops for prospective hikers to park, stocked up on snacks and water (vital as resupply is sporadic and unpredictable), and headed across the little bridge.
Within minutes, the highway was gone, and green peaks rose on either side. Just as the valley fanned out, we came across the trail map.
The Shangqing Ancient Trail is just one part of a network of trails snaking through the mountains, with several entrances and plenty of paths that take anything from one to six or more hours to complete. We picked an 11 kilometer march from Suosiqaio to Xinlian Village, sticking as close as possible to (probably) the path followed by tea merchants ferrying their wares up from Pingshui and beyond.
Quick optional detour here; hang a right on the paved path, through the gates to a reservoir. Nice place to lounge in the sun before you begin your trek. We even saw a guy swimming.
If you want, you can pop 100 meters up the path to the left of the gate, running along the fence. There's a nice view of a mountain-top temple in the distance.
Little hint; don't keep following that trail. It'll take you half an hour up muddy trails to the Pingwang Highway, which bypasses the first stretch of the Shangqing Ancient Trail. Our curiosity cost us nearly thirty minutes of backtracking.
Back at the sign, the real path began with the Rizhuling Road, probably the best-known stretch of the Ancient Trail. Framed on either side by head-high silver grass, this was our first taste of the centuries-old cobblestones that would keep us company most of the way to the end.
As we followed the path along the valley floor, we passed semi-abandoned farm terraces and the Xiangming Creek. Back when there were inns dotting the road, this creek was where they drew water for tea.
The shift from temperate forest to bamboo thicket was abrupt.
The path was wider and mostly shallow stairs. We met a handful of giggling urbanites hunting photos, but otherwise the only sounds were birdsong and our heaving and panting. The steps were gradually increasing in severity and their irregularity made it hard to find a good rhythm.
Before long we reached Xiama Bridge, literally "Get Off Your Horse Bridge," a popular rest-stop for travelers. The original was built in 1226. The building that stands there now can't be more than fifty years old.
Just when we thought the stairs would never end, we reached the Pingwang highway, the road we found after the wrong path from the reservoir.
Across that pavement is Rizhu Pavillion Temple and the Taiping Well, where the trail starts descending. Legend says the Ming Dynasty strategist and poet Liu Bowen stopped here for a drink before going off to join the Hongwu Emperor's army and whip the Mongols. Evidently delighted, he named it the Taiping Well. Time has not been kind to the spring, so we sipped from our canteens and had a bite to eat under the stony gaze of the temple gods.
The stairs led down to the first village, Shangzhu, which held quiet rural harmony and answers to one mystery: what those red flyers we saw littered on the path were about. I present Rizhu Lingxia Tucaiguan, Shangzhu's best restaurant.
We'd packed food, but the gregarious nainai who runs the place wouldn't let us leave without a mingpian.
Wind your way through the village path around to the right/west. If you get lost, don't ask for the "Shangqing Gudao." The locals will think you mean the bit you just came from. Ask for the shuiku, the reservoir, instead.
Another azure man-made lake. The left-hand road heading for the gap between two peaks took us to a tiny path marked by tour-company ribbons, the second leg of the Shangqing Ancient Trail, and where things get really good.
The dense bamboo muted sounds and filtered the sun into a green haze. The path was broken and overgrown, interrupted by stepping-stone crossings of narrow creeks and precipitous paths around more centuries-old terraces. Broad felled stalks lay across the path so low in places we had to duck under them. This is what an Ancient Trail is supposed to look like.
As we approached, a thick obsidian shape recoiled from its patch of sunwarmed cobblestone and retreated to the stream's opposite bank.
Yeah, there are snakes here. Watch your step. Stick to the paths marked by the colorful ribbons, as in some places, the old cobblestone path disappeared almost completely.
The rough-cut stairs made their insidious return, worse than before, and we gave up pretending we weren't winded as we pulled ourselves up the sudden incline to another pavilion.
This is one of the highest points of the trail, at 400 meters above sea level. A sign proudly stated we still had three kilometers to go, but at least it was downhill, cruising through more bamboo.
The shift back to temperate forest is almost as abrupt as at the start, marked by this tree with dozens of ribbons.
Further on, a short cliffside path.
We reached a lean-to affair with cinder blocks and sheet metal roofing. Perfect place to snack and recharge after an hour and a half of interminable stairs.
Further on, we met a couple who had stopped to soothe their aching feet in a stream. They asked us if it was still far to go. We nodded sympathetically. The path down from the pavilion was almost as steep as the trek up.
We came to Jinyu, the second village, which stretches from the mountain to the Pingshui reservoir, on Shaoxing's southern tip. You could take a bus back to the city center from here, but we weren't done yet; there was one last peak to summit.
We made our way through the village, sticking to the main road and following the vague gestures of the locals towards the southern peaks. The town was much bigger than Shangzhu.
On the western end of town is another bridge. That led us to a very yellow building with a signpost pointing to the Taoyanling Trail, and the ascent to the Temple of Spring Water and the Village on the Hill. Third and last leg of the Shangqing Ancient Trail.
By this stage, we'd spent roughly 5 hours on the trail in total (accounting for a fair few stops to take pictures and curse stairs). We'd started out late, and we were nervous about the dwindling daylight. We stopped at a company retreat ground and asked the attendant how far it was to the top of the mountain.
"Not far," he said cheerfully. "Less than half an hour!"
The lying git.
This ascent, unlike the others, wasn't a gradual valley incline leading to a sharp bit at the end. No, this stretch started at staircase and only got worse, evidently built in the proud mathematical tradition of "the shortest distance between two points is a straight-line."
The downside, of course, is that without even the shortest flat bit to rest at, it's absolute murder on the knees. Half an hour in and with no end in sight, we communicated entirely through stifled whimpering. We were hunched over and letting the inertia carry us up the jagged scales of that infernal serpent.
Near the top, we came across another abandoned little temple, dedicated to another spring. This is the Temple of Spring Water. According to the sign, when there was a drought here in the '60s, the spring stayed abundant and saved a lot of lives. The view from here is breath-taking, not that we had any breath left.
The top, the kind, gentle, beautifully level top of the trail was marked by a collection of seven or eight houses huddled in the lee of the peak. The Village on the Hill. It was empty except for an old man mixing cement next to a battered radio. He looked up to see who was hurling so much triumphant profanity at his stairs, before going back to work.
The sun had disappeared, leaving us a silky blue half-light. We hoofed it down the mountain, barely stopping to see the tiny villages along the way, or what looked like a tourist center under construction. Was that the outline of a toll gate?
Two kilometers later, we were greeted with the end of the Shangqing Ancient Trail: the parking lot, cultural center and public restrooms of Xinlian Village.
The next bus to Qingtan wasn't for another hour and a half. We settled in for cigarettes and the rest of our trail mix (sunflower seeds and raisins) in the deserted town at the end of the trail, reflecting on how quiet the mountains were and savoring the feeling of accomplishment.
By the time the bus arrived, it was dark in the way only rural areas get, and we were the only ones on board. This final stretch of the old caravan trail has been paved over. Pretty sure the traders would've have ridden in the horsecart for this leg of the journey as well.
Trains from Shanghai Hongqiao to Shaoxing North go four to six times an hour, first (decent) one at 6am. Tickets cost between 71-92rmb, and the fast D and G trains take about an hour and a half. Exiting the station, you can grab a cab or a Didi at the taxi line to the north, and go to Suosiqiao, which will take you about half an hour and cost you in the 70rmb range. You can also take the bus from the station across the bridge to the south; Line 60 takes you out of town, and you can change to Line 503 to Suosiqiao, which will take you an hour and a half and cost you about 5rmb.
How Long Does A Through-Hike Take?
We hit the trail proper a little after 10am and reached the bus station at the end at about 4.30pm. This included a detour to the reservoir, a wrong turn that cost an hour and a fair number of stops for photography, for a grand-total of about six-and-a-half-hours. Although it's only 11ish kilometers, they're occasionally pretty tough. Don't underestimate how much your pace slows after a thousand irregular, rough-hewn steps.
The last train from Shaoxing leaves at 10.03pm. Getting from Xinlian Village to the station is a little tricky. There are only eight buses a day (6am, 7am, 8.05am, 10.05am, 1pm, 2.30pm, 4.10pm, 5.40pm) to Qingtan. From there, Line 61 goes to town, then Line 2 takes you to the station. It'll take at least two hours, more depending on how late it gets. We ended up cutting it uncomfortably close to the last train and called a Didi from Qingtan. It took an hour and change to get to the station, costing 140rmb. He demanded an outrageous tip for driving half an hour out to Qingtan to pick us up.
Can I Day-Trip It?
Yes. If you're ambitious, you could grab the first three or four fast trains out of Shanghai and be on the trail by 9am, which gives you plenty of time to reach the end and get back to Shanghai that evening. There are several package tours that charter a bus from Xinlian Village to make it even easier.
However, if you don't want to rush, stay the night in Shaoxing. A half-day there would give you give you enough time to wander some of the city's parks, see Lu Xun's birthplace (relocated downtown in its entirety in the 2000s), and drink cheap huangjiu from rice bowls at the Xian Heng Inn.
Then hit the trail early the next morning and don't spend so much time fiddling with cameras.