By Roger Allnutt
SHANGHAI, CHINA — Wuzhen, about sixty miles from Shanghai, is one of the most famous of the small water towns found along the Grand Canal that stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou in eastern China.
With a history dating back over 1000 years since it was established in 872AD, Wuzhen has never changed its name, water system or lifestyle. Most of the current buildings date from the late 19th century and they have been carefully preserved. A feature of the town are the ancient stone bridges that are constructed in a variety of shapes and designs; the arched bridges are particularly attractive and provide the perfect spot from which to photograph the changing scene along the canals and the flagstone streets that cross in many places. Stone balustrades line the waterways.
About ten years ago I visited Wuzhen and although it was a closed town and special permission had to be obtained I was charmed by the ancient buildings and the people going about their daily lives in a way unchanged over many years.
Recently the town has been ‘changed’ into a tourist attraction (opened February 2007) but this has been done with great vision preserving its many unique features while incorporating many of the traditional activities into a ‘planned’ experience in what is still a living town. There are no modern signs, no glass fronted shops and its ancient ways of life maintained. I wandered down the alleys watching the town come to life for its daily quota of visitors. Shop keepers were opening their doors which comprise a series of planks that all fit together like a fence and are removed and stacked against the wall to be ‘refitted’ at the close of business.
A young woman was preparing rice cakes, a man was making a sort of cake using sticky rice, and a man was making sweets by drawing out long skeins of a sugary mix which looked just like making spaghetti. Visitors can see many traditional crafts being maintained during their visit to Wuzhen. Pots covered with a silk mesh and topped with a coolie style lid contain a dark gooey mess which eventually turns into soy sauce. There are shops selling colourful lanterns and also painted umbrellas, a craftsman makes intricate silver ware while ladies work assiduously on traditional embroidery.
One of the bizarre aspects of Chinese life in the past was the tradition of foot binding undoubtedly a very painful practice but a status symbol that allowed women to marry into money. Practised for nearly 1000 years it only stopped in 1911. Tucked away in an alleyway is the superb Chinese Foot binding Culture Museum with its priceless collection of 825 pairs of tiny boots and shoes from various regions of China. Beautifully preserved and artistically arranged and displayed together with foot binding tools and fascinating pictures and detailed accompanying information the museum is a must.
Wuzhen is divided into two main parts, the smaller Dongzha or eastern part which is more open and has a canal about 400 yards long and the main Xizha or western part. Xizha Scenic Area comprises 12 individual islands surrounded by canals, which are only accessible by boat. The twelve islands are interlinked by 72 old stone bridges of various shapes and sizes, with the 1.8km long Xizha Old Street running across from east to west.
The highlight of Wuzhen is undoubtedly the waterways. In the Xizha area along the Xishi River the bridges span the narrow canals and together with the ancient docks and waterside pavilions is a photographer’s delight. A ride in a small boat propelled like a gondola provides many interesting angles and is a great way to end your visit. On the waterway I came across a man on a ‘punt’ with six fish birds perched around the rim of the boat. Apparently the birds dive for fish which they store in their bills before regurgitating them later.
The most interesting of the bridges are Tongji Bridge and Renji Bridge, two arch bridges that form a right angle. While standing beside one bridge, you can see the other through the opening; the two bridges are named “The Bridge in Bridge”. They are both high and imposing, and their half-round arch openings reflect in the water, forming two complete rounds.
The ancient town contains a number of hotels where it is like staying in history. I stayed at Tong An Hotel which takes up one of the 12 islands of Wuzhen. Its comfortable rooms and suites overlook the waterways and looking out of your window is restful and therapeutic.
Wuzhen Clubhouse comprises three beautifully restored Ming and Qing dynasty, timber manor houses. Traditional gabled roofs and upturned eaves, intricate wood carvings and striking stonework can be seen at every turn. Choose to stay in Splendid House, Shine Town House or Heal Town House, each with its own unique characteristics and restaurant. Situated next to Wuzhen’s ancient pharmacy, Heal Town House places a strong emphasis on recuperation and healing. They are part of the Leading Hotels of the World portfolio.
To visit Wuzhen tourist attraction costs 120 Yuan (about $20) which includes the boat ride on the canals.
Getting there: A number of airlines fly from Los Angeles to Shanghai.
Staying: Recommended hotels in Wuzhen include Tong An Hotel, Splendid Clubhouse, Lin clan Hotel and Shinetown Wuzhen
Roger Allnutt travelled as a guest of China National Tourist Office.