Like the many canals criss-crossing the ancient water town of Wuzhen, life meanders here as it has for more than a thousand years. The old wooden houses, cobble-stone alleys, stone bridges and banks of willow look like they come right out of a black ink Chinese painting. Of all the places we went to on our quickie tour through the golden triangle of Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai, this was the most memorable.
As far as preserved old towns go as tourist attractions, I found Wuzhen to be a bit more low-key. Unlike Venice, which has more tourists than residents, Wuzhen still has a healthy population of about 60,000. Granted that these are more likely to be the elderly than the young. On the day we were there, tour buses packed the parking lot but the streets of Wuzhen were not as crowded as expected.
Peeking into the homes that fronted that narrow street, the occasional fridges, ceramic floors and flat screen TVs were the only signs that we’re actually in the 21st century. The facade of the houses are faded wood and the clack of mahjong tiles lent a nostalgic air.
While there are houses which do a part-time business in selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs, these seemed to be more half-hearted than any real attempt at commercial enterprise.
Wuzhen has a couple of interesting folk museums. We went to one that showcased beds! The beds don’t look very comfortable but I really loved the ornate carvings. The bed being a space for repose and for couples, conjugal bliss, the carvings were richly meaningful and plentiful in symbolism. This particular bed below is about 200 to 300 years old. It had space for personal belongings, including a potty! The plaque hanging there is like a privacy tag, the ancient (and much prettier!) equivalent of the Do-Not-Disturb sign. Mirrors above the bed frame were placed to dispell evil spirits. Clearly this must have been commissioned for someone of stature and wealth.
Set in an old house with a bewildering maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards, the bed museum was linked to other folk museums on traditional customs of Jiangnan and an interesting display of traditional dress for men and women. Surprisingly, there were signs in English – helpful because my Mandarin was not exactly up to scratch and while I could understand 80% of what my guide said, the English signs helped fill in the blanks. This is one time I wished I had paid more attention in Chinese class in school!
Other interesting places to see in Wuzhen included the very pretty and dramatic scene of long swathes of indigo and white patterned cloth hung on tall poles and fluttering in the breeze casting long shadows in the late afternoon. This was to give visitors an insight into the trademark deep blue and white dye work that the area is known for. The indigo is not only used for dyeing but also a herbal treatment for colds.
The town even has its own brewery. The lethal baijiu – or San Bai Jiu as it is called – has been made here for more than two hundred years. At more than 50% alcohol, sample at your peril. Deceptively colourless, even a thimble-ful burns a trail down the throat. I would not be surprised if the oesophagus lining peels off! But after a while, after the initial sputter and choke, the fire mellowed to a deep comforting warmth in the belly. Now I understood why baijiu was made – to keep people warm in harsh country winters. This is a far cry from my favourite yuzu-shu!
Set in an alley off the main drag, the brewery looks like the rest of Wuzhen – unchanged by time. The clay jars in the courtyard really makes for pretty patterns.
We were at Wuzhen for about 2 hours so we only saw a fraction of the town. The visit ended with a slow boat ride down the main canal on a traditional wooden boat helmed by a boatman – somewhat like the Chinese version of the gondola – but much cheaper! No singing though, but the view of everyday life from the canal was good enough for us.
Even though piped water is now a reality in Wuzhen homes, we still saw some people washing their clothes and their plates in the canal. The water looked still and a bit murky but the guide assured us that it was not stale. Linked to the ancient waterway, the Grand Canal which runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, Wuzhen is the only water town that sits adjacent to this.This explains the town’s size and prosperity as a mercantile centre.
I’m adding Wuzhen to my list of loves for old timeless villages. While Tsumago, Magome, Ouchijyuku are well-known in Japan, Wuzhen is the first Chinese ancient village I’ve seen. It being a water village is another unique point in its favour. This is a place, like other old towns anywhere in the world – Venice, Tsumago and so on – best savoured after the crowds have left for the day. This means staying a night at least. There are several minshu or guesthouses scattered amid these rows of preserved houses that will give a comfortable and atmospheric night’s stay.Because by night, when the lampposts blink on and the lanterns are lit, that is when you would feel the weight of history of a thousand years come alive and imagine the silent footfalls of many who have walked these streets over the centuries.
Wuzhen is an easy road trip from Shanghai or Hangzhou, being only two hours away by bus. Day tours are also offered by tour companies but I think to do this place justice and savour the ambience, it’s best to spend a night. Wuzhen’s tourism office can help make reservations. Admission to the old town costs about RMB180 including the boat ride.