China’s staggering growth, grand and storied history, and recent modernization have coalesced to make it one of the most intriguing places to visit, no matter how many times you’ve been there before. This time, we head east with travel writer Matthew Askari to experience the Red Dragon in a way few foreigners have: on the road. Here, he drives—and in true Chinese style, is driven—in ultra-luxe, extra-long, feature-laden versions of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans, all produced in China. Read on to track his epic, four-day route through the Golden Triangle region around Shanghai. Wanderlust for an intimate look at the many personalities of this gargantuan, diverse country guaranteed.
To drive in China, you need a Chinese driver’s license, which is why our road trip starts with a few days in Shanghai. This Herculean task requires Chinese residency, a visit to a Chinese version of the DMV—which is usually housed in a police station—and several innocuous tests. You must pass benchmarks for vision and dexterity (if you can squat, you’re good), among others, fill out a few forms, and take a requisite photo. With the help of a native Mandarin speaker, and a hotel address as your short-stay residence, you might have yourself a temporary license in half a day’s work, valid for the duration of your stay, granting you a truly rare, exclusive way to experience the country.
And while a stop in Shanghai is required to be able to hit the road, the buzzing city is an ideal entry point for our rally. China may currently be having its second act, but Shanghai has only just been born: If there is a visible, physical metaphor for China’s astonishing rise, it’s here in Shanghai. What just 30 years ago was a simple ramshackle village on the Pudong, has been constructed into a futuristic metropolis from the ground up. Take a stroll along the Bund, a waterfront promenade that’s particularly alluring in the early evening, to see soft light glistening on the water, and skyscrapers and towers poking the clouds flash their colorful lights. Watch boats and ferries sail by while you sip a cocktail at one of the countless rooftop bars in the area.
There’s no shortage of tempting gastronomical delights—and fitting in as many as we can before we depart is at the top of our itinerary. The crispy duck at Hakkasan is just as renowned in its country of origin, but for something you can’t get closer to home, try Shanghai Grandmother, or Wei Jing Ge, at the famed Waldorf Astoria on the Bund (just one of the city’s many seriously opulent hotels). And while it’s quite trendy now, Shanghai is the home of the infamous Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings, it’d be a minor travesty not to investigate a few purveyors, preferably on the street.
There will be more time for modern Shanghai upon our return, but as the day comes to a close we’re anxious to see some of China’s more historical places, too.
Day 1: Shanghai to Suzhou
It’s early, and after a hearty breakfast at our hotel, the Banyan Tree Shanghai on the Bund, we load our bags into the Mercedes E-Class, ready for the first leg of our trip. We’ll be traveling in style. This is Benz’s second biggest market, and a car this plush—featuring two 12.3-inch digital screens bonded together to create a strong digital graphic, rear seats that can recline and feature extended cushions, a digital panel to control the sun blinds, and privacy screens—is often reserved for C-suite executives.
With the car loaded up, we’re ready to hit the road. As we set the car into drive and roll into the city, the traffic is thick, near paralytic. But this slow going gives us the opportunity to observe the place from a different perspective. Buildings rise into the sky at random, with a mix of architectural styles. There are pockets of greenery, trees and foliage struggle against the concrete. Bikes, scooters, and pedestrians crossing the roads all intertwine, but there’s an underlying order to it, a natural flow and rhythm that’s understood by everyone, or so it seems.
After a dramatic bridge crossing over the Pudong, we’re soon on a freeway, not unlike the ones we’re familiar with back home. While the city might be a little more daunting to the uninitiated driver, the nearly two-hour drive along the freeways to the day’s destination in Suzhou should be easily navigable for those with even limited driving experience.
The city turns out to be a small gem. For every bit of modernity Shanghai throws at you, Suzhou counters with a touch of the old world. Two women wearing elaborate full-length silk gowns walk hand-in-hand under the cover of umbrellas. Men sit idle on stools, smoking and observing the cars and people passing by. Raw meat hangs on hooks in open-air butcher shops. While Shanghai boasts the lauded names of the French and Italian fashion houses, here you find local boutiques and merchants.
We walk passed the many canals and bridges of the old city on our way to dinner, and the intimacy of Suzhou immediately grabs ahold of us. Our guide suggests a local place, and orders a feast that we share on a rotating table. Routine dishes like roast chicken are elevated with the heads and claws mixed in, parts locals treat as a delicacy. Green beans cooked in a savory, garlicky soy sauce vanish almost as quickly as they appeared. Sautéed cabbage and fiery red chilies complement a fried pork and peanut dish, one of the house’s specialties. We drink local firewater, the characters on the bottle are all in Chinese, and wash it down with cold Tsingtao beers that seem to replenish automatically.
The humidity keeps things pleasant, and we walk off our dinner in the warm evening—or a bite or two of it anyways—before stumbling upon a new mixology lab, cocktails are on the up, even in this tucked away part of the Yangtze Delta.
Day 2: Suzhou to Moganshan
After last night’s indulgence, the next morning comes fast, and before we depart, a brisk walk around the old town cements its charm. The Humble Administrator’s Gardens, which date back to 1513, are a must-see. And as we walk the myriad bridges and footpaths that float over pools and connect islands, it becomes clear this place is a symbol of what attracted people to this city for centuries, its tranquil gardens and unique charm.
While we could easily spend more time soaking in Suzhou’s canal-side atmosphere, Naked Stables resort in Moganshan is calling. As we roll out of our hotel’s parking lot onto the city roads, the wide dimensions and grand length of this extended-wheelbase E-Class become apparent. We glide through this ancient town, the mopeds, scooters, and small cars all swarming around.
We soon find ourselves in thick forested mountains, and gloriously empty roads. We open the turbo V6 engine, the trees become a green blur, the momentum momentarily thrusts us back in our seats, this sensation such a rarity in China’s traffic-choked lanes. We pass emerald lakes as we climb higher into what we’re told is the Hamptons of China.
As we come closer to Moganshan, everything slows down. We park our E-Class next to the Porsches and Range Rovers, and swap one set of wheels for another. Electric golf carts are the primary mode of transportation at the resort, and with its 121 treehouse villas perched among the steep hills, you’ll be happy to skip the climb to your room.
The resort is a LEED-certified, eco-chic property with, as the name suggests, on-site stables to indulge your inner equestrian. Days can be spent riding and hiking through the verdant valley, or at the full-service spa to temporarily turn down the stimulus. Insights into the region’s history are plentiful: you can help pick tea on the property’s plantations and try your hand at traditional crafts like bamboo weaving and pottery making.
After settling in, we partake in a tea ceremony. Seated on the floor in a grand room overlooking a pool, our master of ceremony instructs us to close our eyes, focus on our breath, and calm our mind. The purpose of this is to “cool” our bodies, as the stimulus of daily activity has most of us running “hot.” It works. After a few minutes, there’s a calming quiet. We then try various white teas, which range from nutty and bold, to sweet and light, depending on the tea, and flush. Chinese cookies are offered as a complement.
For a change of pace, we indulge in a traditional Chinese barbecue under the stars that evening. Because of its remote location and relatively little nearby light pollution, the stars that are hidden in Shanghai are glittering overhead in Moganshan. We feel a million miles away from everything here, something that must be especially prized in the world’s most populous country.
Day 3: Moganshan to
It’s April’s fourth birthday, a horse that is much loved by guests and employees alike at the Stables. We start the morning with a celebration, feeding April carrots, while everyone sings Happy Birthday. After coffee, we load up once again to head towards the largest city in the Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou. Descending the mountain proves as fun as climbing it, and Mercedes-Benz’s air suspension easily mitigates the rougher roads out in country—it’s rare to find roads that aren’t perfectly paved in the city, but out here, weather seems to take its toll.
We pass forested hills, and make our way through small towns before arriving at West Lake. The destination has long enchanted, and more than a millennia’s worth of tales and Chinese legends have been centered around the lake. There’s a different air here, and the vibe is idyllic and tranquil, pagodas and temples are intertwined amongst gardens and greenery. People everywhere ride bikes, or laze along footpaths that circle the shores. Everything seems to move slowly, it feels like vacation everywhere you look.
Our hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake, is an enclave of serenity itself. Its low-slung, traditional-style buildings are surrounded by gardens, ponds, and canals. There’s an exquisite spa, and several first-rate dining options on the property. My suite, which features a mix of Chinese and more classically western decor, has an enclosed sun room overlooking the picturesque gardens. I open the windows for a moment to hear the birds chirping, quite pleased at their surroundings, I assume. Sometimes you yearn to return to a particular place, but I would return to Hangzhou just to stay at this property.
We thoroughly unwind in the tranquil surrounds of the Four Seasons before coming together for our final feast before returning to Shanghai. We eat our way through suckling pork, bamboo shoots in a savory gravy, and a delicate, buttery whitefish as we debrief on the highlights of the last three days.
Day 4: Hangzhou to Shanghai
Before hitting the road, we take a quick peek at Hangzhou’s more industrial side. We take a whistle-stop tour of Alibaba’s headquarters—the mammoth company is China’s version of Amazon, and one of its biggest financial titans. Nearby, we head into one the world’s foremost Maybach dealerships. In China, imported cars are taxed heavily, especially those with big engines. A Mercedes-Benz S-Class will run you as much as a Bentley; opt for a loaded AMG version, and you’re in Rolls-Royce territory. Astoundingly (and perhaps tellingly of Alibaba’s influence), the dealership here sells more than 220 Maybachs—the most distinguished vehicle in the Benz portfolio—per year. Attributes like the extravagant legroom, handmade silver Champagne flutes, and extreme exclusivity all appeal to Chinese buyers. The rate at which they sell in Hangzhou is yet another sign of China’s stunning economic growth.
We then set out for one last drive back to Shanghai. We stop for street food, root vegetable fritters cooked in a wok of bubbling oil. Later, a roadside wonton soup, and Chinese scallion pancake with egg. We drive by narrow alleys, small towns en route to the grandest of them all. I’ve got an insatiable curiosity, but exploring these other parts will have to wait. China intrigues, now more than ever. That night I’ll watch the boats sail by, the skyscrapers flicker. On the rooftop people will be having cocktails. And when it’s time for bed, I’ll slip into a deep slumber, the sights, smells, and moments from the road in China, all rolling by.