Run to the Moganshan Hills

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Wood work Take a hike through Moganshan's forests

In the never-ending debate between residents of Shanghai and Beijing about which city is superior, one Beijing trump card has always been proximity to the countryside. In Shanghai, Beijingers point out smugly, you can drive for three hours and still be trapped in urban sprawl. In the capital, not much more than an hour on the road gets you out into the stark, sparsely populated beauty of the Western Hills, with the Great Wall thrown in as a bonus. Sadly for Beijing partisans, they will be less able to rely on that argument in future, because from now on Shanghaiers will come back with a single word: Moganshan.

Nestled among bamboo forests in rolling hills a 2 ½-hour drive from Shanghai, Moganshan is a once glamorous hill-station retreat that is just beginning to reawaken. In the early decades of the 20th century, foreign residents of Shanghai — later followed by rich Chinese families — flocked to these hills for relief during the humid summers. They built sprawling houses complete with swimming pools, tennis courts and dance floors. After the communist takeover, Moganshan retreated into obscurity, with many of the mansions crumbling into ruin. But in the past decade, visitors have been drawn back to it by its serene beauty, long hikes and, of course, proximity to Shanghai. To cater to them, many of the old lodges have been revamped.

Avoid Moganshan during the so-called Golden Week holidays like Chinese New Year and National Day (Oct. 1), when tourists flock in by the busload. But for much of the rest of the time, the hills seem still half-forgotten, and it is possible to hike through the bamboo forests (every bamboo marked with the name of the family entitled to harvest it) for hours without meeting another soul. The air is clean, stars are visible in their spangled glory at night, and in the fall and winter a roaring fire in a potbellied stove is complete bliss.

Sorry, Beijingers. You'll have to fall back on the intellectual-superiority argument now.

Where to stay

— By Mitch Moxley

Naked Retreats, a collection of restored farmhouses, embodies the new Moganshan. Don't be fooled by the name — nudity is confined to your bungalow (apropos of which Romance packages are about $295 per person for a two-night stay).

The concept for the two-year-old retreat came to South African and Shanghai expat Grant Horsfield who, while on vacation in Vietnam, realized the need for a rustic escape from life and work in China's financial capital. Horsfield teamed up with Briton Gabriela Lo, who shortly after stumbled upon a decaying Moganshan village (the youngest resident was 61 years old). "Once I found the village," Lo says, "I thought, This is it." After initial skepticism from the locals, Naked leased six of the village's 18 houses and now employs nine of its 14 residents.

Upon arrival, guests are taken on a "decompression walk" and encouraged to spend a few minutes in awe of the scenery, "just to appreciate where we are," says Doug Lapuc, resident manager. Activities include cycling, bass fishing and mountain hikes. But Naked Retreats' best feature is serenity. Visitors can wander through dewy tea plantations and bamboo forests, or swim in a reservoir to the buzz of cicadas. Accommodations are basic — the wooden floors creak and there's no air-conditioning — but bungalows come with Western-style kitchens, flat-screen TVs and wireless Internet. See