Shanghai’s World Expo 2010 is expected to be a tourist bonanza, drawing 70 million visitors between May and October. Shanghai being the polluted, hectic, crowded urban jungle it is, it would be a rare visitor who never felt the urge at some point to escape to fresh air, trees and a bit of peace of quiet. The easiest and most interesting places to get to for a day, a weekend or longer are scattered across the Yangzi River Delta. The nearby cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou are two of the most pleasant in China, and their landscaped gardens and parks will certainly restore your stretched nerves. Both are ideal for a two- or three-day break.
The region west of Shanghai around Tai Hu (Lake Tai) includes some of China’s loveliest countryside. Here you’ll discover centuries-old water villages. Bowed bridges span narrow canals, as traditional oared boats paddle by, creating an almost perfect picture of a way of life long past. A trip to one of these villages will probably be a highlight of your trip to Eastern China.
Be careful which village you choose, though. The tourist dollars that flow in may have saved these villages from the wrecking ball, but they have also changed their character to differing degrees. Those closest to the larger cities can be the most swamped by tour groups. Trekking to an out-of-the-way destination can pay off by letting you find a village that you will have all to yourself.
For visitors eager to glimpse a Yangzi River delta water village but who are unable to spare an entire day, the ancient water town of Qibao, located in Minhang District a scant 18km (11.5 miles) southwest of downtown Shanghai, makes for an acceptable if not terribly exciting alternative.
Like many water towns in the area, Qibao was built in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), but only came into its own in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Opened as a tourist attraction in 2002, the “old town” (many of the structures are newly built to look old) spans about 2 square kilometers and has the usual narrow alleyways, arched bridges, and canals. Unfortunately, it’s also surrounded by a new town and many ugly modern concrete structures.
Both a blessing and a curse, Qibao’s proximity to downtown Shanghai means that it can be easily reached, but it is also overrun with tourists, making a relaxed leisurely visit (the ideal way to see a water town) all but impossible. From downtown Shanghai, you can take Tourist Bus A (¥2/25¢, 1 hr.) from the Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center at the Shanghai Stadium to Qibao.
Alternatively, take Metro Line 1 to Xinzhuang Station and walk 200 meters to the intersection of Humin Lu and Qixin Lu; take Bus 91 in the Beixinjing direction and get off at Qibao Zhen station. A taxi from downtown Shanghai will cost around ¥70/$9. There is no longer an admission fee to the old town, only separate admissions fees (¥5-¥10/60¢-$1.25) at select sights.
The most famous of the water villages is undoubtedly Zhouzhuang. Its fame is partly due to its proximity, just 45 minutes from Suzhou and an hour away from Shanghai. As a result, more than 2.5 million visitors head to the water village of Zhouzhuang each year to catch a glimpse of old China. Its charm is reduced by the sheer number of tourists who elbow their way through the streets. Next to the “ancient memorial archway,” which isn’t ancient at all, is a ticket window. The steep entrance fee of Y100 gets you into the water village-turned-gift shop.
Crowds aside, Zhouzhuang is fun for families. Several residences, some 500 years old, let you see what life was like in the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are several storefronts where you can see brick making, bamboo carving, and basket weaving—traditional crafts that up until recently were in widespread use throughout the countryside. The food is typical country fare, making it a nice break from the fancier cuisine of Suzhou and Shanghai. The most famous dish, a fatty cut of pork leg, is a bit oily for most Western palates. But there are also pickled vegetables and wild greens to sample. For crafts, skip the snuff bottles and teapots, which are of low quality. Opt for something you probably won’t find elsewhere: homemade rice wine, rough-hewn ox-horn combs, and bamboo rice baskets.
Buses to Zhouzhuang leave from Suzhou’s North Bus station every half hour between 7 AM and 5 PM. The 1½-hour trip is ¥15 to ¥25. From Shanghai, There are Zhou Zhuang buses leaving Shanghai Indoor Stadium Sightseeing Bus Terminal every morning.
The pick of the water villages is Tongli,30 minutes from Zhouzhuang and 1½ hours from Suzhou. There’s a more reasonable entrance fee of ¥60. A number of locals still live and work here, making this village seem more authentic than Zhouzhuang. The streets are cobbled, and the complete absence of cars make Tongli feel like it’s from a different era. You can still find yourself wandering on quaint side streets or creeping down impossibly narrow alleyways that open onto canals and bridges. Tongli is the largest of the water villages, imminently photographable, and a pleasure to explore.
Near the entrance gate are several private homes offering beds, and throughout the village are tea shops and small tables set out in front of the canals. Hiring a boat (¥60 for up to 6 people) to float down the canals gives you a different perspective on the town.
A favorite spot in Tongli is Tuisi Garden, a slightly smaller version of the private courtyard parks found in Suzhou. Tongli is also home to the Ancient Chinese Sexual Culture Museum (0512/6332-2973, www.chainsexmuseum.com (Chinese only)), housed in a former girl’s school. The controversial exhibition of ancient erotic toys and art is the project of a retired university professor.
Buses to Tongli leave from the square in front of Suzhou Train Station every 20 to 30 minutes between 7 AM and 5 PM. The journey is Y6 to Y10. From Shanghai, there are Tongli buses (2 hr., ¥120/$15 round-trip, includes ¥80/$6.25 entrance fee) that leave the Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center (Gate 25 of the Shanghai Stadium/Shanghai Tiyuguan) daily at 9, 9:55 and 10:25am. Departure times may change so call ahead (tel. 021/6426-5555) to confirm. From Tongli, buses return to Shanghai at 4:45, 5:30, and 6pm.)
Even farther off the beaten path is Luzhi,about a half hour from Suzhou and Zhouzhuang. It has been described as a “museum of bridges.” There are over 40 here, in all different shapes and sizes. Many of the older women in the village preserve traditional customs, wearing traditional headdresses and skirts. Luzhi is also notable for the spectacular Baosheng Temple (Luzhi. 0512/6501-0067), a yellow-walled compound that is famous for its breathtaking collection of Buddhist arhats. Arranged on a wall of stone, these clay sculptures are the work of Yang Huizhi, a famous Tang Dynasty sculptor. They depict Buddhist disciples who have gained enlightenment; these works, made over 1,000 years ago, impart the character and artistry of their creator. The temple also features a well-preserved bell from the end of the Ming Dynasty.
Luzhi-bound buses leave from the square in front of Suzhou Train Station every 30 minutes between 6:30 AM and 6:30 PM. The 40-minute drive is Y10. From Shanghai, you can take Shanghai Sightseeing Bus at Shanghai Indoor Stadium Bus Terminal on Saturday and Sunday.