Suzhou and the watertowns
Near Shanghai are about 10 attractive small villages that have preserved their old towns and are situated on a lake or river. These watertowns are all within an hour of Shanghai so they are popular spots to visit on weekends or even weekdays. We visited a number of these towns. In addition I will include Suzhou and Hangzhou in this discussion because they are both in the vicinity and famous for their water settings even though they are way too big to be considered watertowns. When we visited China in 1980, the official visits to places outside Shanghai included a day trip to Suzhou and overnight in Hangzhou at West Lake.
Suzhou is the best known of these sites, but with a population of 10 million it does not have a small town vibe. It is sometimes referred to as the Venice of China or the city of gardens. The classical gardens of Suzhou have been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Because of its proximity to Shanghai, it can get oppressively crowded on holidays and weekends. It’s about a 30 minute ride by fast train from the Hongqiao railway station in Shanghai. We visited Suzhou three times, once with just the two of us for a trial run and Lil took both sets of kids there when they came to visit on weekdays when I had to teach.
West Lake Hangzhou (杭州)
West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Hangzhou is probably the most famous lake in China. A measure of its fame is that President Nixon visited 3 places on his historic visit to China in 1972: Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. There are numerous poems, paintings and novels that feature West Lake and it is famous for its moody atmosphere, especially when it is foggy. An important feature of West Lake are the stands of willow trees.
We visited Zhouzhuang by mistake. We had made plans to visit Tongli and Zhujiajiao over a weekend, and I had made reservations for two nights at an Airbnb in Zhujiajiao. Our plan was to first visit Tongli on Friday and then take a taxi to Zhujiajiao in the late afternoon. Although the towns are near Shanghai, they aren’t the easiest to get to since they are not on the subway or fast railway line. We rode the subway to the end of the Shanghai line and found a taxi to drive us to Tongli. While negotiating the taxi, another rider came along since he was going somewhere that was, apparently, along the way. So the additional rider was quite talkative and engaged the driver in conversation. Inevitably we were included and when they found out that we were from the States, they asked me what I thought of Trump. It actually took me several questions before I understood what they were asking since I didn’t know what the Chinese called Trump. Anyway we talked politics for a while. They opined that Trump seemed ‘strange’ and I agreed. Meanwhile they offered opinions on our decision to visit these two watertowns and thought that we should go to Zhouzhuang rather than Tongli. They claimed that Zhouzhuang was closer and just as scenic. We had actually considered Zhouzhuang in my planning but I didn’t realize that it was actually closer, so mid-ride we changed our minds and went to Zhouzhuang instead. And the cab driver actually cut the fare since we weren’t going as far.
It turned out just fine so the cab driver’s advice was good. In other instances when cabbies offered advice, it did not turn out so well (see our experience in Guilin). Zhouzhuang was quite picturesque and interesting. Several months later we made our way to Tongli and it’s difficult to say which town was ‘better’. Each of these towns has its own flavor and specialties, often involving a local food choice, as well as ancient cultural sites. They probably do this to make them special to the most common tourist, a resident of Shanghai who might be enticed to come back again. In Zhouzhuang the specialty was tipan, a red cooked pork hock.
As these are all watertowns on small streams, ancient bridges and boat rides are common. In Zhouzhuang they are proud of some unique old bridges, for example a double bridge where two streams cross. These stone bridges are generally 400 or 500 years old.
After spending the morning and afternoon at Zhouzhuang we took a taxi to the nearby town of Zhujiajiao . Apparently it is now possible to take a subway from Shanghai to Zhujiajiao but it was not possible when we were there. We had rented an Airbnb for two nights which worked out very well except that the first night we got lost in the small town and had difficulty finding our way back to the Airbnb. Only with the help of a kind lady were we able to find the place. It turned out that the map of the town which the owner had provided had a small mistake in that one of the bridges was not marked on the map. So we kept going down the wrong street in the dark.
Zhujiajiao is a popular watertown for Shanghai residents to visit. We wanted to spend the night here so that we saw the town after all the tourists had gone home. Indeed, it was quite crowded during the day, especially on Saturday, but the evenings were blissfully quiet. The old buildings in the town are lit up at night which made a nice tableau.
Xinchang is a less well-known watertown which is surprising since it is directly accessible off the Shangai subway system. Take line 16 to Xinchang. You then need to take a bus or taxi to the old town. The town is less touristy than the other watertowns we visited and feels more like there are actually people living here. The town has a number of interesting statues as you can see below. Most of the statues try to evoke the flavor of old Shanghai. Apparently the (in)famous movie “Lust, Caution” by Ang Lee was filmed here.
As in all of the watertowns, there are a variety of street food available. One popuar food here and in other parts of Shanghai is ‘stinky dofu’ which is definitely an acquired taste. One can easily detect the presence of a stinky dofu shop as you meander down the street.
By now you should have a pretty good idea what these small watertowns are like: bridges, canals, colorful shops and cafes. You often see people washing their clothes or dishes in the stream which is almost uniformly murky and toxic looking. Despite the heat one never feels the urge to go for a dip.
One of the interesting things in Tongli when we visited was a coromorant fishing boat. The boat had 4 or 5 cormorants who had a string tied around their gullet so that they could not swallow any fish that they caught. The fisherman would send the birds into the water and they would emerge a short time later with fish in their mouth, which the fisherman would then extract. It must be that occasionally the fisherman would let them eat the fish. It’s not clear why the cormorants are motivated to do this though one suspects they’ve been doing it for their whole lives. In Tongli the fisherman doesn’t send the birds down to fish unless a tourist gives him a certain amount of money. Apparently one makes more money from the tourist trade than from the fish.
Qibao is accessible from the line 9 of the Shanghai subway so it is one of the easiest watertowns to reach from Shanghai. Lil went here by herself while I was working and she also took Eric and the grandkids there for a day.