The rusty old bus from Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province rumbled along the tree shaded road, swerving past frequent potholes and dodging wayward livestock. Rural scenes that hadn’t changed in a millennium flashed by the grime- incrusted windows. We secretly thought that we might be arriving in an undiscovered corner of Zhejiang and were about to enjoy a tourist- free canal town. How naive could we be? And our wishful thinking of exploring a hidden gem was promptly shattered, when our bus hit a huge, 4 lane highway that cut in front of our little country road, just as we were arriving in Wuzhen. The highway, built to facilitate the convoys of coaches that shunt tourists up and down from Hangzhou, ends in an enormous car park, from where microphone toting, flag waving tour guides harangue their cattle- like hordes through the main entrance.
Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, Wuzhen is a perfect example of a traditional Chinese canal town. Moreover, its location on waterways that feed into the Grand Canal takes visitors back to times gone by. Unfortunately, in some ways, Wuzhen may be too perfect for its own good. The preservation of its architecture, a mixture of Qing and Ming dynasty houses and mansions, is stunning. The time-worn narrow cobbled streets, huge ancient doorways and delicately arched bridges entice exploration. However, the problem with Wuzhen is that it can get swamped; not by water, but by humans. No self-respecting Chinese tour group visiting Hangzhou, of which there are thousands, can leave Wuzhen off its list. What’s more, many Western travel agencies have added the town to their itinerary. Even in mid-week, in the middle of September 2005, it was pretty crowded.
Things to See and Do
Despite being well established on the tourist route, Wuzhen offers a great insight into canal town life. Firstly, because local residents still inhabit the immaculately- preserved houses in the old town, cultivating their little gardens and hanging their washing out to dry. Secondly, because the frequently held performances of the local opera Huagu Xi, or Flower Drum opera, the shadow puppets, or Piyingxi, Wushu martial arts, long pole acrobats and many other popular art forms from China’s past are highly entertaining, as well as enlightening. With so much stage-managed entertainment for tourists, you might think that it’s all going to be rather vulgar, but actually it isn’t. The performances are rather fascinating and, obviously, the setting couldn’t be any better. For instance, you can go behind the screen of the puppeteers and watch how the puppet masters manoeuvre their leather charges. They’ll even let you have a go in the break.
There are also many local industries you can visit. One of the most popular places to head for is the alcohol distillery, Sanbaijiu Fang, where the traditional brewing of rice wine is carried out. The rowdy and permanently besieged bar sells the lethal concoction by the glass, bottle or cask.
Other houses demonstrate dying and weaving techniques, especially the blue batik cloth that is famous throughout the Jiangnan region, fabricating bed clothes, bolts of cloth and traditional garments.
As for food, there are many stalls specialising in snacks, biscuits and sweets dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as some traditional tea shops.
Lastly, there is also an old pawn shop, turned museum, which you can visit to get an impression of what ancient business life used to be like.
To get the most out of a visit to Wuzhen, try and dodge the tour groups when entering the sights. By fine-tuning your timing, you may still enjoy a few moments of having a particular sight to yourself. In contrast, the brewery is best visited when there are groups, as the mayhem and drinking are intoxicating, literally!
Like other canal towns, Wuzhen has its own river taxi collective, who will row you around the canals and under the bridges for an hour. However, if it’s the unfettered, authentic canal life you are looking for, just step outside the old town and there it is: rusty canal barges still ply up and down the polluted canals, while grey- brick factories belch out black smoke and pump vile- coloured water into the canals. It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, if you like river scenery that is.
We visited Wuzhen in 2005 and paid 60 Yuan to enter the city and all its attractions. The town is easy to explore on foot. However, for something more romantic, you can let yourself be rowed along the canals.
Getting There and Away:
Though Wuzhen is most easily approached from Hangzhou, we visited the town on a (long) day trip from Suzhou. This meant first taking a bus to Jiaxing, in Zhejiang province, from where there are plenty of buses throughout the day to Wuzhen. It took over 2 hours to get there. The same coming back.
Food and Accommodation:
We didn’t stay at Wuzhen, but there is plenty of accommodation if you wish to do so. This may be a good option as Wuzhen by night, without the hordes, must be extremely atmospheric. Below are a number of sleeping options that regularly feature on travel forums:
Farmhouse One: Uncle Zhang
Next to the town centre, with a hospitable host and three rooms for rent. Maximum capacity is seven people. Extra rooms can be found in the neighbourhood for larger groups. High season rates: RMB 120 per room (two to three people) per night; other times: RMB 60-80.
Location: No. 297, Dongdajie, Wuzhen
Farmhouse Two: Aunt Peng
Next to the town centre, run by a hospitable couple. A self-service laundry and hot water bath are available. It has a small courtyard and river views from upstairs rooms.
Location: No. 13, Banganshang, Yingjieqiao
Next to the farmhouses. Equipped with modern facilities and 50 bunk beds. RMB 50 per bed. RMB 150 per standard room. Perfect for backpackers.
Location: south bank of city river, east side of Taipingqiao
Yijiangnan Jiangnan Inn
Outside the scenic area. A modern hotel with 24-hour hot water, air conditioner, TV, telephones, disposable bathroom items and mini bars. RMB 100 for a single room.
Location: South of Xiuzhen Temple, Wuzhen
Information taken from: Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province
There are plenty of restaurants in and outside the scenic area. Try some of the local dishes like Chou dofu ( Stinky tofu) and local fish. Many stalls in the scenic area sell snacks that were popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties.
If you speak German try this site for a lot more info and great pictures of Wuzhen:Wuzhen