Ancient water town transforms into tourist mecca
Beneath the bus window, a race was on. The runners elbowed each other as they jockeyed for position, crowding the unopened door of our moving vehicle. Young and old vied for position, smiles pinned on their faces and tourist maps held open. The tour guides shivered with excitement. Hydrolics hissed. The door opened and they were upon us, hawking their services in one breath and cursing their competition in the next:
"Hello sir, have a look."
"You want tour guide/hotel/restaurant?"
"Very good price."
"This is new hotel."
"I love you sir!" offered one woman.
"Bu yao!" (Don't want!) was our mantra.
"Oh, you speak Chinese," replied a stout village woman with cavernous eye sockets. "I like foreigners and I never charge them too much like all of these other cheaters." She eyed her competition malignantly. Taller villagers cringed under her mean gaze.
"I always drive foreigners," said a brave but frail little woman dressed in traditional embroidered linens and a red cap with the white words: "Welcome to Zhouzhuang, China's first water town, the Venice of China."
The cave-eyed woman slapped the map out of her rival's bony fingers. Then as the woman bent over to pick it up, she lost her cap. Her hat was soon trampled beneath the throng as we inched towards a line of waiting pedicabs. Drivers who had been sleeping across the passenger seats awoke at our approach and joined the fray.
Here comes the cavalry
With a cursory warning honk, suddenly an SUV pulled recklessly through the mob. Out stepped a spry young man in a Hawaiian shirt. He walked through the aghast, silenced villagers, and handed us a business card to his guesthouse.
"Ignore these people," said Mr. Zhang in proper mandarin. "They are uncultured. I'll take you for a look at my place in my car."
He opened the door and my girlfriend and I jumped in automatically, along with a family of dazed Chinese tourists. As he whisked us from the new town bus station, our host introduced us to Zhouzhuang. The new town was saturated with factories, cinder block behemoths with no outward signs of life. Much of China's countryside has been given over to these engines of economic development. But Zhouzhuang's Old Town has taken a novel approach to economic betterment: Historical preservation.
For aesthetics are the commodities that Zhouzhuang Old Town owns and sells. Paved streets gave way to bumpy cobblestones and canals with graceful arched bridges. Many of the elegant ancient touches are actually restorations by Taiwanese investors.
According to our host, these Taiwanese financiers have plunged more than 200 million yuan into Zhouzhuang's new and old towns. All of the new development that borders the Old Town is done with a tasteful nod to historic style.
Our host pointed down a long canal, our first glimpse of "China's Venice." A bridge arched up above a reflective pool luminescent with the red light of early evening. A couple of gondoliers circled their boats behind the bridge. Restaurant proprietors ignited red lanterns in front of their low-slung, waterfront establishments.
My girlfriend and I arrived at our accommodation in a newly developed portion of the Old Town and prepared for a sunset stroll along the canals. But the boss stopped us at the door.
"Have you showered recently?" she asked.
"We showered this morning. Do we smell bad?" My girlfriend retorted sharply.
"No, it's just that you need to wait until dark before you can go into the town. Otherwise you need to pay 60 yuan for a ticket that will be useless tomorrow."
Of course, when aesthetics form your product line, sunlight is a signature item that can't be given away free. As such, entrance to the Old Town is free only after dark. We walked down to the Old Town anyway and took photos of the bits that sprawled out beyond the ticket booths (to the dismay of the vendors).
The next morning, our hostess had somehow secured us 45 yuan multi-day passes to the Old Town and its various points of interest. Early, by the standards of a Western vacationer, in the morning, we set out from our lodgings and walked the gauntlet of still-idle pedicabs to the Town gate.
Mrs. Zhang accompanied us to make sure we obtained our discount pass and she explained how she had once paddled a gondola on the canal but left that business to start a guesthouse.
The influence of Shanghai's economic sphere of influence has apparently reached right into the heart of this 900-year-old village. I say 900 years old, as that is the characterization of the town by its tourism bureau. In fact, the Zhouzhuang Museum displays artifacts that date back to Neolithic times as well as a variety of artifacts from the Xia (2070B.C.-1600B.C.) and Zhou (1046B.C.-771B.C.) Dynasties. These were all excavated recently from areas in the Old Town. Thus, the town's history extends for, perhaps, 5,000 years.
Zhouzhuang did at least receive its present name and image 900 years ago. Unlike many small Chinese towns, Zhouzhuang is not named after the most popular surname of its inhabitants. Actually, it is named after an outsider, a Song Dynasty (960-1279) "investor." Zhou Digong, an imperial official of the economically advanced dynasty, seems to have been nearly as concerned with money as Zhouzhuang's modern Taiwanese investors.
In 1086, he built the Quanfu (Pure Wealth) Temple and many other buildings in what was thereafter called "Zhouzhuang" (Zhou village). A magnificent, watery, incarnation of this Buddhist temple exists today, although it was constructed primarily in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Among the specific tourist attractions within the Old Town (admission to which is included in the entrance fee), the temple stands apart as a place that made me gasp at its pure beauty.
The look of the current town is a hodge-podge of Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture. The buildings are one and two stories with stucco walls and heavy, dark, wooden eaves. Many of the streets amount to tunnels beneath overhanging roofs and these passageways are lined with open-fronted stores that sell all of the tourist tat readily available anywhere else in China, but somehow more interesting in this setting. Phony jade, wicker baskets, beads, tapestries, turtles, opium pipes and old books are among the booty on sale: All overpriced.
People in traditional dress will be happy to serve you in almost any capacity. They will make you terrible food, featuring fish from the stinky canal. By the way, when you go to a restaurant in the Old Town, don't let them serve you complimentary tea because it is not complimentary.
The price for this bland, cheap tea is 5-20 yuan per cup. The traditionally dressed people will not only feed you, but they will also tell you your fortune, massage your feet/back/neck/elsewhere. They will give a tour and take any empty bottles that can be sold for a few jiao.
The local specialty foods of Zhouzhuang are stewed pig's foot, barbecued pork and pickled vegetables. Fish, crabs and mini-shrimp from the canals are also served, but not recommended by any of the North American physicians in Zhouzhuang on tour. A 60 yuan ticket covers a wide variety of individual tourist attractions (See following tourist information for a list of Zhouzhuang tourist sites) scattered about amongst the canals and huddled buildings of ancient Zhouzhuang.
Two houses of wealthy Qing Dynasty (1616-1911) families provide an interesting glimpse into the daily life of ancient China in a small rural village.
One rich man named Shen was very worried about assassination attempts. Thus he took the precaution of making all of the thresholds in his house extremely high to slow down any would-be killer.
An old medicine shop has lizards and bugs preserved in formaldahyde and the Zhouzhuang Museum is a worthy exhibition of the town's rich and fairly well documented history. The real fun to be had in Zhouzhuang, though, is the scavenger hunt required to find these sights (assuming you don't cheat and buy a map).
Whether wandering the maze of alleys or rocking gently on a gondola between the narrow, white-washed walls of a canal, Zhouzhuang is photogenic. It is a place with its feet in the past and its hands in the present, palms up, accepting tourist dollars day and night. This position creates an awkward culture of hospitality with a cost, starting with the 60 yuan fee and extending to the gondoliers who belt out folk songs for the enticement of 20 yuan (and not a fen less). Zhouzhuang provides photo-ops of dynastic China within a working prototype of the profitable future of Chinese historical preservation.
Shen's Mansion (Shen Ting)
Zhang's Mansion (Zhang Ting)
The Double Bridge (Shuang Qiao)
The Prosperity and Peace Bridge (Fu An Qiao)
The Empty and Transparent Taoist Temple (Cheng Ting Dao Yuan)
The Mi Tower (Mi Lou)
The Zhouzhuang Museum (Zhouzhuang Bo Wu Guan)
The South Lake Pure Wealth Temple (Nan Hu Chuan Fu Si Miao)
The Medicine Shop
Gondola Rides: There is a boathouse where boats line up to take people for a 25-minute boat ride along the thin canals. It is 80 yuan per boat, whether there are eight people or only two. You can usually find willing shipmates at the boathouse.
Getting to Zhouzhuang
From Suzhou: Most people think that Zhouzhuang is actually a part of Suzhou as photographs of the town are often mislabeled as such. In fact, it is a two-hour bus ride from Suzhou to Zhouzhuang. The buses are small conversion vans with more seats than they were intended to have and leave regularly throughout the day from the plaza by the train station. As most people arrive in Zhouzhuang via Suzhou these buses are always crowded. It is more pleasant to go directly from Shanghai.
From Shanghai: Buses are larger, newer and less crowded than those from Zhouzhuang and leave regularly, throughout the day from the long distance bus station.
Food and Accommodation
There are many guesthouses inside and outside the old town. They all cater to both foreign and Chinese tourists regularly. Be aware that to access hotels and restaurants inside the Old Town, one needs to pay the 60 yuan entrance fee. Tickets are good only on the day that they are purchased and once inside the Old Town, it is still necessary to show your ticket before entering the individual tourist sites. The restaurants outside of the Old Town are better than those inside. There is a chain dou jiang restaurant one block down the street from the Old Town's main gate and it is the cleanest place to eat. Ask the owner of your guesthouse about securing cheaper multi-day tickets to the Town. After bargaining, a double room cost 80 yuan.