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Castles in the Clouds:
Ghost Hunting on Moganshan

by Lisa Movius

It's hard to live in Shanghai without developing a certain affection for the place, without falling in love with it a bit. That love can often lead, as such things do, to a compelling curiosity about her checkered past. Like a glamorous but reticent woman approaching middle age, Shanghai can't hide all the lines in her well-painted face, and these lines belie an irresistibly mysterious and colorful history. As with the Shanghainese themselves, most of Shanghai's ghosts can trace their origins to Zhejiang Province. And there is a particular concentration of said ghosts on the mountain of Moganshan.

The 2000-meter high mountain of Mogan is renowned as the favored nearby retreat of bankers, gangsters and generals in the Republican era. Its most notorious frequenters were gangster and king-maker Du Yuesheng and the king he made, Chiang Kai-shek. In fact, the dubious heroes of the Republic were late-comers to Moganshan, which was a vacation spot for missionary families as early as 1890. By the early 1930s, there were about 160 Western-style stone mansions, as well as seven tennis courts, a stream-fed swimming pool, and two churches -- one Catholic and one Protestant. Chiang Kai-shek and his cronies began assembling on Moganshan in 1927, when Chiang first came with Soong May-ling on their honeymoon. The Kuomintang crowd set up their mansions on the other side of the mountain, which was soon named Wuling after Chiang's home village in Xikou. Throughout the 1930s, Moganshan's Wuling was the site of work and pleasure for China's political elite.

Traveling to Moganshan from Shanghai is a trip back in time. From the gleaming post-modernity of Shanghai in 2000, one passes through the mid-'90s "grungy but working on it" of the Hangzhou bus station. The bus from Hangzhou is a rickety mianbaoche minivan affair crammed with migrant labors headed home with their month's earnings crumpled carefully into a bulging pocket. As you rattle into bamboo country, furniture workshops line the highway, churning out wicker furniture destined for Pier 1 import stores across America. The small urban hole of Wukang takes you back yet another decade to the early 1980s, when Gaige Kaifang -- "Reform and Opening" -- was just lurching to a wary start. Here a few sparsely-stocked shelves, there a woman paying a cobbler to repair her worn plastic flip-flops, with the backdrop of peeling, long-forgotten ads. Don't look for the city center: there is none. Tell the bus driver you're headed to Moganshan and they'll take you to the lot from which the relevant buses leave. Settle the fare in advance: it should be 8 up the mountain, but they'll try to charge 20 if you aren't careful.

Once you've swapped buses, the time-travel continues, through pastel-green rice paddies interspersed with clusters of 1950s Soviet-inspired boxes of buildings that still somehow manage to seem quaint. At the very base of the mountain is what appears to have once been the bus station: It is now a combination noodle shop, auto repair station, and pool hall. This little brick structure just screams Nanjing Decade, and from here it's all uphill, past three-story French-Spanish houses that look like they somehow wandered out of Shanghai's old French Concession and ended up here. The windy road up the mountain is of the old style, concrete mixed with rocks, and is grooved to prevent slippage. It's not too hard to envision shiny black Buicks parading up this stretch, complete with shifty-eyed bodyguards perched precariously on the runners. Your bus, however, will whiz along with utter disregard for the blind turns, narrow roads, and dropping cliffs. We nearly collided with a bus headed down at an equally breakneck speed, and rapid application of brakes sent an infant on his mother's lap hurling through the air, barely missing the driver's open window, and landing with a startled thump at the front. As good an argument as I've ever seen for child car seats. The parents were not amused.

I arrived in Moganshan on a misty autumn afternoon with the smell and threat of impending rain. The map provided with the 40 fee to "enter" the mountain proving totally useless, I picked a random stone path into the bamboo thickets and began to climb. The stone steps confusingly criss-crossing the entire mountain are the original slabs, pounded into the dirt with such masterly precision that they have survived some eighty years of rain, mud, and the pounding of countless feet.

Most of the winding paths of Moganshan are unused during the daytime, except by a resident on his way too or from the once glorious mansion that he now share half a dozen other families. Meander up to any of these houses to be greeted by a host of free-range chickens, clucking their disapproval at your intrusion, along with a few disoriented ducks and a guard puppy a little too happy to have company. That, plus the mosquitoes, which are bigger than wasps and as poisonous as scorpions: the bites on my ankles required medical treatment and left me hobbling for a month. The buildings are constructed of roughly-hewn blue-gray stone like so many medieval castles, and many feature rounded turrets, expansive balconies, and sloping red-tiled roofs. The buildings abandoned to crowded residential purposes are in the most original shape; the villas requisitioned by hotels have had their stonework plastered over into more geometric shape and their roofs replaced by green or pink corrugated tin sheets.

Like other old resort mountains, Moganshan was once the exclusive domain of the Chinese political elite, and for the most part it remains that way. Although most Chinese have never heard of Moganshan, carloads of cadres arrive every weekend with squealing Little Emperors in tow. They bounce up and down the rock paths in traditional sedan chairs carried by grunting-chanting coolies between Moganshan's "tourist spots" -- a house Mao slept in in the '60s, a minor waterfall with Chinese calligraphy carved and painted red all over the rock face. Or there's the Moganshan Museum, an old mansion converted into a plastic pagoda highlighting all the odd arts and crafts that can, but probably shouldn't, be made from bamboo.

A half-hour trip over the top of the mountain to the Wuling side winds past a stone marker declaring in Chinese that this was where the first foreign house on Moganshan was built. The Song Yue Mansion, built in 1933, was home to the Generalissimo and the Madame during their jaunts in Moganshan. Now the Wuling Hotel, the interior has been slathered with glossy yellow paint, with the Art Deco doorhandles the only testament to its former style. One wing preserves Chiang's old bedroom and study, complete with command phone and ostentatiously expensive mahogany furniture. An adjacent room is dedicated to detailing with photographs and letters Chiang and Soong's activities in Moganshan, from their 1927 honeymoon to their final visit in 1948.

Du Yuesheng's villa is a few houses down, but is marked by no memorials or plaques. The sprawling cluster of one-story buildings, connected by covered paths, is the most Chinese construction on the mountain, and was built by Du as an ancestral shrine. There also is a Western stone mansion, more typical of Moganshan, in which Du actually resided and which is now a guesthouse.

The damp night began to close in, and cadres belting the Carpenters gave the crickets competition. Budgetary concerns prompted me to opt for a less infamous inn on the old foreigners' side. The old villa had been renovated beyond recognition in the 1950s, and abandoned to disrepair ever since. Its age could only be ascertained from the layout of the room, the height of the ceiling, and the creak of the floor. Three rooms per floor share a huge balcony overlooking the valley, but one room was empty and the residents of the other were not inclined towards outdoor lounging, so it was just me, the view, the mosquitoes, and drying off-white underwear. Come morning, after a stubborn rainfall that hammered, I curled up with book and tea and watched glimmers of sunlight trickle through the mist, doing little to dry off the skivvies.

I wandered the quieter of the paths for a morning before a lunch of chicken and young bamboo and embarking on the return time warp to the present day. I listened hard, but the reticent ghosts only teased me with the rustle of bamboo thickets and the gurgle of a forgotten stream. Yet one Moganshan woman wisely advised, "Return in the off season, when the tourist groups and bossy hotel managers have left. You can hear better then."

Getting there:

Air-conditioned buses to Wukang leave every morning at 10:10am from the New North Bus Station (258 Hengfeng Lu, at Gonghe Lu, 5663-0230), costing 31 and taking four hours. Alternatively, take the bus or train to Hangzhou (approximately an hour and a half) and then catch a bus to Wukang, which takes an hour and costs 6. Buses from Wukang up the mountain leave every few minutes and cost 8.

Lodging:

Hotels abound in Moganshan, but many will be full come peak season. The Wuling Hotel (052-8033132), Chiang Kai-shek's old villa, charges 260-680 a night during the peak seasons of July and August, 200-480 for the medium seasons of April to June and September to October, and 160-380 in the off season running from November to March. Better deals can be found at smaller hotels not listed on the travel guides.

Lisa Movius is Shanghai City Editor for ChinaNow.com
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