There was a time when visitors to China would only think of the imposing Great Wall or Forbidden palace as its iconic representation. Today, it’s more the gleaming metropolis skyline such as the ones you can see in the major gateways into the country. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou come to mind. Sometimes we forget that it is not always the new and shiny that is attractive.
Thus, we looked for a hidden side to the hustle and bustle of the large cities which largely eludes a lot of travelers. One of these sources of tradition and quiet is the water towns of the “Huadong” (华东) area. During Mel’s stay in Shanghai, it was easy to arrange for a quick sojourn out to these little towns that dot the region.
First a little history.
If there is any way to describe the historical significance of the region, it would be that it is considered a prize to be fought over. The Yangtze river forms a natural barrier that ‘separates’ the north from the south, and it has indeed been a political border for many a dynastic regime. But aside from the strategic nature of the region, it was also the fact that area was abundant with riverine and land cultivation could have made it a land of rice and fish. And with such produce it would not be surprising that urban centers sprung up to enterprisingly trade and distribute such the bounties of the land (and water + river).
Get there early
Many of these towns are scattered all over the Zhejiang (浙江) and Jiangsu (江苏) provinces – where the mighty Yangtze river created a mix of river tributaries or lakes. For example, Wuzhen (乌镇) is about 2-hours’ drive from Shanghai.
Our many trips to these water towns were always done early in the day (so the early bird does get to eat the worms…) – as the throngs of tourists that swamp the place after that can literally squeeze the ‘atmosphere’ of this small town scene away rather quickly.
Walking along the canals of the town is very relaxing particularly in the winter or early spring. Many of the these towns have restored the houses and shops that line the canals, and they are a real pleasure to stroll amongst.
And rich these towns were during the height of prosperity in the 16th till 18th centuries. Large stone/brick houses were built and businesses roared with a hive of activity as trade grew. So, despite the smallness of the towns, they were the economic development zones of their time.
Industrial giants of the time
Today you can still see vestiges of that bygone era – such as the cloth dying factory in Wuzhen. Cloth dyed and printed with its signature design are left hanging to dry, ready for export or sale in other parts of China! Perhaps in those days these were the designer apparel widely sought! Heheh.
When we were there, we also found an old “factory” that manufactured various forms of the “Shaoxing” wine. This rice wine (liquor) smelt sweet but sure packs a punch if you ever drink too much of it! Yet another specialized in producing various grades of vinegar. Not just sauce for your dim sum! Such was the diversity of produce that this region of supposedly small towns provided in the past.
One thing you do need to know though. Because the throngs of people have come. These water towns are now commercial enterprises charging fees for entry. We recall for instance that Zhou Zhuang (周庄) used to be open air and freely accessible. But that changed with the introduction of a RMB100pp charge!
Merchant Princes of China
For us one of the points of enjoying old towns is the opportunity to view antiquated buildings. Some of these structures are already more than 200 years old. They look so rickety as if they may collapse in an instant. For example, the house in the photo below is literally built over water with seemingly weak pylons in the water supporting it! We guess this must be the home of a not-to-well family compared to the rest. It’s so fragile looking! Even in those prosperous days, the income gap must have been really large…
No trip to a water town will be complete without touring a typical manor house of the merchant princes. These wealthy folks that resided in these towns also took great pride in building grand homes, some of which are well preserved with their original furnishing (well some replicas too). You can see in some of the manor houses they can be really “advanced” with appliances and other amenities afforded only by the rich in those days. It’s like looking into the homes of the super wealthy today.
We visited a manor where the stoves installed looked Victorian (and appears to be ceramic), rather than the traditional billow blown Chinese style ones. This family’s really into home decor! So you see, globalization was not a recent phenomenon!
The water towns that we have written about are typically not close to large metropolitan developments (well at least the real ones). Thus, you need to prepare quite some time to journey to them. The road trip itself can be adventure all on its own! Our trip from Shanghai to Wuzhen took about 2 hours and rode through the country (back then in 2001).
Of course not everything is about history and architecture. There are some towns with special dishes that you can sample. For example, you can try out the Pork Knuckle of Zhou Zhuang. Folks who cannot get enough of it will even buy sealed packs of it to bring home!
Be prepared to spend an entire day to really savor the atmosphere. Spend some time in the numerous tea houses that are now typically opened catering to tourists. This is one side to China that will probably be increasingly rare in the future as the country propels itself mercilessly towards a futuristic setting.
Our journeys took place over a period between 1999 – 2002