There are plenty of quaint water towns not far from Shanghai, ranging from the ramshackle (Xinchang) to the kitschy (Zhujiajiao). None are better than Wuzhen, though. A hundred kilometers southwest of Shanghai, Wuzhen has done an admirable job balancing preservation with commercialism. Few expats leave there disappointed.
Wuzhen is neither the “Venice of China” nor a “Disneyland of Chinese culture” as it is alternately lauded and vilified. The original village dates back to the 9th century and flourished along with the Southern Song dynasty. But Wuzhen’s real renaissance came seven years ago when the local government got serious about the webwork of canals so emblematic of Jiangnan culture, split the west section (Xizha) from the east (Dongzha) and put it under unified management.
Steer yourself to Xizha, where the buildings, bridges, pagodas and paths have been meticulously restored. Trinket vendors have been kept out in favor of genuine local craftsmen. Guesthouse operators don’t compete with each other to play the loudest karaoke. The environment is highly regulated, not in small part by the RMB180 entry fee (that gets you two days of access to both Xizha and Dongzha).
Properly speaking, Xizha is an island cut off by the Grand Canal and its tributaries and any Wuzhen weekend starts in a little wooden boat. Get poled over to the other side and leave modern China behind. Wander four kilometers of stone paths, crossing over arching stone bridges centuries old and ducking under canopies of wood, until you hit White Lotus Tower. About halfway there, stop at the little village square where Lao Wang, the local projectionist, curates a nightly series of open-air screenings (even in winter!) from China’s golden era (the ’30s and ’40s), threading up real celluloid for the event. If that gets boring, in a hall on the other side of the courtyard, local musicians take up traditional instruments for an evening of pintan (storytelling accompanied by instruments).
Wuzhen is best at night when the village is tastefully lighted. In the evening, bridges are lined with photographers armed with massive tripods. But they leave after a few hours, and the village will be yours. We also love getting up at the crack of dawn for a peaceful stroll.
There’s plenty more to do in Wuzhen. You’ll want to jump aboard a water taxi and see the sights from water level. You’ll want to eat a bowl of beef noodles, the local specialty. You’ll want to visit the calico dyeing facility (calico is Wuzhen’s most famous product). The Footbinding Museum is also fascinating. All these are in Xizha. Make a trek to Dongzha to visit the ancestral home of writer Mao Dun, in particular for the hall of photos, which do a credible job visually tracing out the sweep of China’s 20th century.
Getting the right accomodation is key. The Wuzhen Guesthouse (573-873-1666) is actually a series of standalone guesthouses. There are many on the water, but very few have real terraces on which you can sit with your morning coffee. Ask for one directly and expect to pay RMB700-plus a night. You can also go upscale at the Wuzhen Clubhouse (573-873-1222), a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.